A question of honour

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THE Acropolis has it; Moscow's Red Square has it; so does Sydney Opera House; but bizarre locations including housing estates in Germany and even a radio station in Sweden also hold the honour.

For the moment at least, Edinburgh also has it.

Now though, the World Heritage Site status awarded to the Capital's Old and New Towns in 1995 is under review because of concerns about the impact of the massive Caltongate development.

Faced with the threat of losing the title, questions are now being asked about exactly what benefits WHS status brings.

Being labelled World Heritage Site brings no automatic funding, but the decision 13 years ago to award Edinburgh the accolade was hailed at the time as a "tremendous boost". The then Lord Provost, Norman Irons, said it would enhance the Capital's status among the towns and cities of the world.

Edinburgh's World Heritage Trust argues WHS status is an internationally recognised quality mark that puts Edinburgh in the premier league of worldwide destinations and helps market the city to visitors.

Yet Edinburgh was famous around the world long before Unesco decided to give it a World Heritage Site label, so does the title really make any difference?

Ron Hewitt, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, says: "I'm not sure we need this status. People come to Edinburgh to see the buildings and the setting, not to read the label. I would say what has happened is we have added value to the Unesco brand, not the other way round.

"It's nice to have these things, but no-one comes to Edinburgh because it has World Heritage Site status, whereas Unesco having Edinburgh on its list will have added great value.

"The most important thing is its location and architectural heritage. It's the real buildings that matter, not the ticket you put on them."

The council's economic development leader, Tom Buchanan, also voices scepticism. He notes that he has seen no figures for how much extra tourism WHS status has generated.

He says: "Edinburgh is a brand that has a distinct image around the world. WHS status is all very good, but is it more than just something we like to have?"

Moira Tasker, director of the Cockburn Association, argues the loss of WHS status would be damaging.

"Edinburgh's world-renowned architectural heritage and landscape setting underpins much of the Capital's economic success," she says. "The World Heritage Site status of the Old and New Towns is a representation of this uniqueness, its clear value and the international standing of the city."

Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, says the Capital had to meet strict criteria to secure WHS status. "It is not enough to simply be a historic site – for example, York and Chester are not World Heritage Sites – or to be an important site in the history of the nation. You have to show that your site is unique, with a story that is so compelling it helps us to understand the way all humankind has evolved over time. To have a body such as Unesco make that kind of judgement about Edinburgh is surely the highest accolade possible."

He says the 750,000 of public money the trust receives each year to award in conservation grants to property-owners would not be as large a sum if it were not for WHS status.

He adds: "Edinburgh World Heritage regularly hosts delegations from across the world, who come here precisely because the city has this international recognition."

The Lake District in England has been considering for some time bidding to become a World Heritage Site, but a study looking at the potential benefits acknowledged it was unlikely that WHS status would bring many immediate advantages to the Lake District "brand" since it was already well known both nationally and internationally. It concluded there was not a clear-cut case for or against seeking WHS status.

PricewaterhouseCoopers has recently completed a study for the UK's Department of Culture, Media and Sport on what benefits in terms of tourism and economic investment WHS status has brought to areas in Britain.

The report has gone to ministers, but is not expected to be published until October at the earliest. It is understood, however, to have concluded the advantages of WHS status are nowhere near as clear cut as many believed, and that the economic benefits are nothing like as significant as previously thought.

Unesco launched its inquiry into the continuation of Edinburgh's WHS status in July amid concerns about the potential impact of the 300 million Caltongate development in the Old Town. Two listed buildings face demolition to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre, which will have an entrance on the Royal Mile.

A group of Unesco inspectors are due to visit the Capital in November, and next year the organisation will decide whether to put Edinburgh on its list of "world heritage in danger".

Whether or not WHS status has made any difference to the Capital, there are fears that to be stripped of the title would be harmful.

Lothians Green MSP Robin Harper acknowledges Edinburgh was a popular destination long before WHS status, but he says: "If world heritage status were to be removed from Edinburgh it would be extremely damaging.

"It would lower Edinburgh in the eyes of the rest of the world if we were seen not to be particularly concerned with the conservation of our historic environment because that's the message it would send out.

"It might be difficult to calculate the benefit it has brought, but it's easy to see the disbenefit if it was withdrawn."