In 2002, the World Heritage Committee declared heritage to be ‘an instrument for the sustainable development of all societies’. The term ‘sustainable development’, however, is inscribed with a complex economic, environmental and social agenda that challenges contemporary World Heritage management practice. This paper draws on a content analysis of six industrial UK World Heritage Site management plans. The analysis focuses on the extent that each plan integrates four key sustainability dimensions. Findings indicate that the planning frameworks and collaboration processes in operation at each site ensure conservation of the historical physical fabric but limit the development of a sustainable local cultural economy. A sustainable heritage management framework is presented based on the adoption of a long‐term strategic orientation and extensive local community participation in decision making. The framework is relevant to other complex heritage sites such as historic towns and cultural landscapes.

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