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St George’s World Heritage Site status still hangs in the balance

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World Heritage Status under threat: St Regis and Fort St Catherine (Photograph by Blaire Simmons)
Fort St Catherine in St George’s, one of the East End’s protected forts - and close to to the new St Regis resort (File photograph)

A crucial report which includes detailed protection plans for two forts affected by the St Regis hotel has not yet been approved, leaving a question mark over St George’s designation as a world heritage site.

The East End’s coveted status from Unesco, the UN’s science and culture agency, was jeopardised by the hotel’s construction inside an area deemed a buffer zone for historic fortifications, according to Walter Roban, the home affairs minister.

Mr Roban claimed last month in the House of Assembly that Bermuda’s only world heritage site had been put under threat because of Unesco’s reaction to the resort, which opened earlier this year near Fort St Catherine.

He told The Royal Gazette the Government’s discussions with Unesco “continue to this day about how the development at St Regis impacts the world heritage forts of St George’s”.

St George’s, along with its fortifications, won the status from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation in December 2000, in recognition of their "outstanding universal value".

But the resort’s proximity to forts “remains an issue”, Mr Roban said.

“We have to ensure that Unesco has a level of comfort with the development and we do not end up like Liverpool.”

Only three sites worldwide have been delisted – the most recent being Liverpool in the UK, which had its special status revoked last month.

The city’s historic waterfront earned it a spot on the World Heritage Register, but Unesco voted to pull the designation over developments around the waterfront.

Plans to build an underground road tunnel near Stonehenge have also put that world famous site’s designation at risk, according to media reports.

The list, established in 1972, currently encompasses 1,153 properties, including the “Historic Town of St George and Related Fortifications, Bermuda”.

A Home Affairs spokesman said a request had gone to the British Government to prvoide an update on the world heritage status designation for St George’s.

He added: “More specifically, we seek clarity on the Unesco and the International Council on Monuments and Sites position on the matter.

“Following receipt of this update, the ministry will be able to advise on St George’s world heritage status.”

Cheryl Hayward-Chew, chairwoman of the St George’s Foundation, also chaired the World Heritage Site Management Committee tasked with drawing up a new five-year management plan for the East End.

She said a draft 2020-25 plan had been submitted to the Government to send on to the UK, but nothing had happened since.

She added: “We were supposed to publish the plan in 2019, and we would start using it last year. What’s happened to it?”

Ms Chew-Hayward said the St Regis resort had been scaled back from earlier plans but that Unesco’s “overall concern is that it lies in the buffer zone” protecting fortifications nearby.

“It’s between two major forts that are world heritage sites,” she said. “That’s Fort St Catherine and Fort Victoria.”

Ms Chew-Hayward said Unesco would need to see the management plan to make its decision, adding: “It’s been in limbo all this time.”

Reka Viragos, an archaeologist and cultural expert at Unesco, confirmed last week that the hotel development had been under discussion.

She told the Gazette: “The World Heritage Centre had several exchanges with the relevant authorities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland about the state of conservation of this property, which included, among other topics, the St Regis Hotel resort as well.

“Documentations were reviewed by Icomos, which is an advisory body for the World Heritage Convention, and a technical review was provided to the UK in 2020.”

She added: “The World Heritage Centre advised the relevant authorities to follow the recommendations put forward in the Icomos technical review, among them, to submit a revised version of the site Management Plan to the World Heritage Centre for review prior to its approval.”

According to Ms Hayward-Chew, the management plan was drawn up in June 2019, while the management committee had not formally met since October of that year.

She said she had heard “nothing” about the management plan since.

At the time, the Government blamed a staff shortage for the delay in the plan.

A spokeswoman conceded in 2019 that it was “a key tool to ensure the retention of our Unesco status” but said the designation was not under threat as a result of the wait.

This week, a spokeswoman for Government House told the Gazette: :Unesco regularly reviews the status of World Heritage Sites to ensure the standards are intact.

“We have no information about any current concerns.”

A source familiar with the drafting of the management plan, who asked not to be named, said the draft had been sent to UK State Party – another term for the British Government – which holds responsibility for world heritage sites in the UK and the Overseas Territories.

He added: “They have it. It was completed by a team at the Department of Planning. What we are waiting for is the British State Party to review it and send it through to Unesco for approval.

“Like with everything else, this pandemic has thrown a spanner in the works. We’re just going to have to be patient and wait.”

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Published August 11, 2021 at 7:57 am (Updated August 11, 2021 at 7:49 am)

St George’s World Heritage Site status still hangs in the balance

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