An aerial view of the rocks of Stonehenge. Visitors walking round are tiny in comparison.
Stonehenge World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, UK. © Historic England
Stonehenge World Heritage Site in Wiltshire, UK. © Historic England

The World Heritage Convention

The UK government has signed and ratified the World Heritage Convention, which was established in 1972 by UNESCO to identify and protect the world’s most important cultural and natural sites.

The UK ratified the Convention in 1984 and, by doing so, joined an international community that has committed to protecting and preserving the world’s natural and cultural heritage.

The Convention initiated a list of World Heritage properties. These properties are sites, places, monuments or buildings of "outstanding universal value" to all humanity – today and in future generations. The World Heritage List includes over 1,000 cultural and natural sites, such as cities, monuments, technological sites, landscapes and geological sites.

The World Heritage List is reviewed annually. There are currently 33 UK World Heritage Sites, 28 of which are cultural sites, and 19 of which are located entirely or partially in England (2023).

Outstanding Universal Value

Sites are inscribed on the World Heritage List because they are considered to demonstrate outstanding universal value (OUV) that makes their permanent protection of the highest importance to the international community.

Outstanding Universal Value means cultural and/or natural significance which is so exceptional as to transcend national boundaries and to be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.

2023 Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, Paragraph 49

To demonstrate OUV, a property must:

The OUV of a site will often differ from its significance. Significance is wide ranging and represents the sum of all the cultural and natural values of a heritage asset. OUV is instead defined for each site in reference to the specific criteria for inscription on the World Heritage List, and consequently will not necessarily encompass all of the values that a heritage asset possesses.

States Parties

The World Heritage Convention sets out the duties of States Parties in the identification, nomination, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission of the cultural and natural heritage found in their territory.

States Parties to the Convention agree to identify and nominate heritage sites within their territory for inscription on the World Heritage List. It is the responsibility of States Parties to protect and conserve the attributes of OUV of the properties and to provide reports on their conservation to the World Heritage Committee.

The Convention also sets out the duty of States Parties to cooperate with the international community for the protection of world heritage. States Parties agree to help in the identification, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural and natural heritage situated in other territories as requested.

All States Parties to the Convention meet in General Assembly once every 2 years during the ordinary session of the General Conference of UNESCO. They elect the World Heritage Committee, make policy decisions, and examine the statement of accounts of the World Heritage Fund.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) represents the UK Government as ‘State Party’ to the Convention and works closely with Historic England, which acts as technical advisor for the implementation of the Convention at cultural sites across the UK. The Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) also supports DCMS at natural sites. Historic England liaises with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Historic Environment Scotland, Cadw and responsible bodies in Overseas Territories in advising on obligations in respect of cultural World Heritage properties in their respective territories.

The World Heritage Committee

The World Heritage Committee is responsible for the implementation of the Convention. It consists of 21 elected States Parties to the World Heritage Convention.

The Committee makes the decisions regarding inscription to the World Heritage List and to the List of World Heritage in Danger. It allocates financial support from the World Heritage Fund and requests action from State Parties when properties are not being managed effectively.

The World Heritage Centre

The World Heritage Committee is supported by a Secretariat appointed by the Director-General of UNESCO. The World Heritage Centre was created in 1992 to carry out this role. The Secretariat assists and collaborates with the States Parties and Advisory Bodies, following the decisions and Strategic Objectives of the Committee and the resolutions of the General Assembly.

Advisory bodies

The World Heritage Committee has 3 advisory bodies:

  • ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property)
  • ICOMOS (International Committee on Monuments and Sites)
  • IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature)

Useful bodies and contacts in the UK

  • Historic England provides advice on the implementation of the World Heritage Convention in relation to cultural sites across the UK. Historic England engages with UNESCO and the World Heritage Centre on new or revised policies, guidance, and reporting and monitoring processes. In England, Historic England provides advice to owners and decision-makers about proposed changes that relate to World Heritage
  • Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) provides expert advice to DCMS in recognising and managing natural World Heritage sites in the UK and globally
  • UK National Commission for UNESCO (UKNC) is the official board coordinating UNESCO activities in the UK and a constitutional part of the UK’s membership of UNESCO. UKNC links communities, UK government and UNESCO’s governing bodies and field offices to inform our national contribution to UNESCO policy and programmes
  • ICOMOS-UK is concerned with furthering the conservation, protection, rehabilitation and enhancement of monuments, groups of buildings and sites, at the national and the international level. They play a leading role in implementing the World Heritage Convention within the UK and in promoting exemplar custodianship of World Heritage sites
  • IUCN-NCUK is the UK National Committee of IUCN. It is a focus for the UK government, IUCN Member organisations based in the UK, and individual members of IUCN Commissions who are based in the UK. IUCN-NCUK acts as a convening body to draw Members together to share information and discuss approaches to influencing conservation policy and practice. It also develops projects linked to the IUCN global programme as a manner of adding value to UK conservation work
  • World Heritage UK (WHUK) is a membership organisation focused on networking, advocacy and promotion for the UK’s 33 World Heritage Sites and Tentative List Sites

UK World Heritage Queries