OXFORD will be named as one of the 500 most important places on Earth if an ambitious scheme to win World Heritage Site status goes ahead.

The city council plans to join forces with Oxford University to apply for the honour, reserved for areas deemed to have outstanding global value.

If successful, the city would be ranked among the world's most valuable natural and man-made attractions - including the Taj Mahal, Great Barrier Reef and Grand Canyon.

The application must be submitted by mid-February, to a review committee set up by culture secretary Chris Smith, and managed by English Heritage.

Only 12 places in UK are likely to be nominated to Unesco, the United Nations cultural organisation, which chooses the sites.

Applications will then be stringently checked out by experts on monuments and natural areas before a final decision is made.

Oxford University historian and archaeologist Trevor Rowley, said: "It's an excellent idea.

"There are more protected buildings in the square mile of Oxford than anywhere else in Europe.

"The city has a tremendous range of architecture from Norman to 20th century.

"It has a complete cross-section over the last 1,000 years and from that point of view it really is quite unique."

He said World Heritage Site status would also encourage people to visit the lesser-known sites of architectural value such as parish churches and smaller university colleges. There are now 17 World Heritage Sites in the UK, including Blenheim Palace, Woodstock, and the cities of Bath and Edinburgh. Oxford's tourism manager, Jean Ashton, said she did not think it would necessarily attract more tourists - and that the city would not want to - but the honour had other benefits.

"It's a confirmation of status," said the tourism manager.

"In visitors' eyes it's a confirmation of what they know already, that Oxford is a very special place."

Moyra Haines of the Oxford Preservation Trust said being designated would make it easier to protect important buildings, because continuous attention would have to be paid to their upkeep.

She added: "We'd really have to look after the city if we were named as a site.

"We couldn't have litter lying about and we would have to have decent paving."

Mrs Haines said it would also make it easier to campaign for better-looking benches and other furniture in the city centre.

If Oxford is nominated it would take at least 18 months of examination by UN inspectors before it is designated a World Heritage Site.

A management plan for Oxford would have to be drawn up, which the city would then have to stick to. THE GLOBE'S TOP SPOTS

Taj Mahal, India

Brasilia, Brazil

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Thebes and the Pyramid Fields, Egypt

Jerusalem, Israel

Venice and its lagoon, Italy

Victoria Falls, Zambia

The Grand Canyon, USA

Converted for the new archive on 30 June 2000. Some images and formatting may have been lost in the conversion.