In the past few years, proposals have been put forward for a large scale re-development of an extensive flat area alongside the river Avon, in the centre of the World Heritage property. The area is in the bowl of the valley and thus can be seen from higher parts of the city. The proposals to develop the area have met with considerable opposition for the negative impact the development could have on the overall visual and planning coherence of the property in its landscape setting. In addition, the Bath & North-East Somerset (B&NES) Council had also indicated its intention to approve another large-scale project alongside the river, for a new school (the Dyson Academy) which would involve the demolition of a listed building and the construction of buildings with prominent glass facades that could be highly visible when illuminated.
As requested by the World Heritage Committee at its 32nd session (Quebec City, 2008), a joint World Heritage Centre / ICOMOS reactive monitoring mission took place from 5 to 7 November 2008 to assess the overall state of conservation of the property and the possible impact of the proposed developments on the property’s Outstanding Universal Value and integrity. Two reports on the state of conservation of the City of Bath have been received from the State Party: a first one on 30 January 2009, and a second one, in response to the mission findings on 13 March 2009.
a) Potential impact of the proposed Bath Western Riverside and Dyson Academy developments on the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of the property:
In its January report, the State Party noted the World Heritage Committee’s concern over the proposed developments. It also indicated that it was not possible, under the United Kingdom planning scheme to withhold final approval if all other stages of the planning procedure had been completed.
The Bath Western Riverside (BWR) development: The scheme was proposed to provide office, residential, retail, and leisure accommodation together with extensive infrastructure improvements. It will be dominated by a major new residential quarter providing some 2,000 new private, affordable and mixed tenure dwellings (apartments and houses). The project under discussion has a relatively high density and is divided into three phases, with only the realization of the first phase, which includes about 300 dwelling-units, being secured. According to the real need for residential units in Bath, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS consider that the realization of this first phase should not be stopped. From the standpoint of World Heritage conservation, the realization of this first step will not have a negative impact on the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of this living World Heritage property. The mission team also emphasized the necessity for the first phase to already cover the infrastructure needs, such as kindergarden, meeting and multifunctional rooms for the inhabitants, etc. to make it fully functional on its own.
To explain why this first phase will not have adverse impact on the Outstanding Universal Value and integrity of Bath, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS recall that the designated area is the right place (currently a derelict and un-aesthetic industrial site) to integrate this new town quarter. The height of the planned buildings is acceptable, and two of the three 9-storey-buildings have already been reduced to 8-storey-buildings; similar heights can be found in the historic quarters of Bath. The acceptance of heights and masses can be understood if account is taken of the fact that the existing gasometers will be demolished more or less during, or soon after, the completion of the first phase. The new buildings will not have more impact than the existing volume of the gasometers. Furthermore, the new streets planned will be respectful of the urban design in place and will not block views. This project also plans to give the Avon River back its role in the city’s life in promoting boat-commuting between the BWR and the city centre; and the development of the banks for leisure purposes.
However, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS recommend that consideration be given to adapting the second and third phases in terms of a re-division of masses and heights of the buildings by any means, such as an international architectural competition, which could give a new impact to the appearance of the project and so as not to add a new barrier within the Northern and Southern parts of the city.
The Dyson Academy project: The mission has received confirmation that this project had officially been withdrawn.
b) Overall state of conservation of the property
The World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS note that the property is currently very well managed, even when during times when the B&NES Council has been short of professional staff. But the Council has recognized the need of a permanent coordinator who was installed recently. At present, there is a good staffing level and financial resources suitable for the proper implementation of the management plan and the objectives set out.
All major buildings and components of the inscription of the property on the World Heritage List (e.g. Roman Baths, Royal Crescent, Circus, Lansdown Crescent, gardens, parks, and public spaces) are in a very good state of conservation and are being closely monitored, as is the landscape surrounding the City of Bath. Indeed, until 10 years ago, Bath has benefited from a 50-year historic building repair programme, respectful of the property’s integrity and authenticity. Efforts are also being put into place by the B&NES Council, through various plans, to prevent any further pollution to the property such as atmospheric pollution due to intense traffic in the City, visual pollution due to numerous street posts and signs, noise pollution through commercial activities in the various historic locations of the City.
The World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS also note that a review of the management plan is currently in progress and that it will include an integrated and comprehensive Tourism management plan, an integrated Public Realm and Movement Strategy, respecting both the authenticity and integrity of the property, and an integrated Traffic Control Plan.
The World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS feel that protection of the views to and from the City of Bath could be strengthened. A clear mapping of these important views to be protected is necessary, as well as how those views will be protected from impacts of any future developments. The study developed by the B&NES Council in this sense, including assessment and identification of key views, based on existing and tested methodologies in the United Kingdom, is welcomed. Finally, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS are of the view that the State Party act on the reinforced protection of the landscape surrounding the property to prevent any future developments which could have an adverse and cumulative impact on the Outstanding Universal Value of the property and its integrity.
c) Presentation of the property
With regards to the interpretation of the property, the World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS invite the State Party to embark on a reinforced, integrated and homogenous interpretation for all the attributes bearing the Outstanding Universal Value (e.g. Roman baths, Circus, Royal Crescent). The World Heritage Centre and ICOMOS also strongly feel that an interpretation centre for this very rich and complex living World Heritage property is very much needed.