Edinburgh fights to keep Heritage status

Edinburgh has been called 'the Athens of the North'. Picture: Scott Taylor

Edinburgh has been called 'the Athens of the North'. Picture: Scott Taylor

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IT’S been called the “Athens of the North” – a city famous around the world for its stunning architecture and wide-ranging contribution to intellectual life.

But now two controversial developments are at the heart of a growing row over Edinburgh’s coveted World Heritage status, a designation awarded by Unesco in 1995 in recognition of the Capital’s “unique character”.

Ambitious plans to transform the former Royal High School on Calton Hill into a luxury hotel, and striking designs for the nearby St James development, have both been slammed by leading heritage bodies.

Today three inspectors from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), which advises Unesco, will embark on a two-day visit to the Capital to assess the impact of the developments, amid mounting fears the city’s heritage standing could be at risk.

Little is known about the experts who will be conducting this “informal fact-finding mission” – or who they will be meeting. Their team will include Icomos-UK’s vice-president for Scotland, James Simpson, and they will spend today in talks with key players before conducting a tour of the sites tomorrow.

Politicians and business figures are urging the specialists to see the bigger picture, insisting the Capital is a living city that can embrace expansion while still remaining a top tourist spot. They say it is crucial Edinburgh remains a thriving European capital that welcomes innovation, growth and investment.

But others warn of a 
looming “catastrophe” if developers are allowed to press ahead with the current plans. These critics point to the Dresden Elbe Valley, which was stripped of its Unesco World Heritage status in 2009 after the building of a four-lane road bridge.

Councillor Cameron Rose, who has previously been a key figure on the city’s planning committee, argues that those taking decisions on developments “have to look at the whole picture and not just the heritage lobby’s”.

He insists it is crucial Edinburgh doesn’t just become a museum, but rather pushes ahead with changes that will secure its future. And he accused heritage groups of “making so much noise” over particular planning issues – such as the height of the so-called “ribbon” hotel at the centre of the St James development – that they risked losing credibility.

Meanwhile, Graham Birse, a business expert and director of the Edinburgh Institute, said “some perspective” was much needed as the debate heats up.

He said the city’s World Heritage status puts it on a “fairly exclusive global map” and was in “good hands” – while also stressing the importance of new developments in the city.

“I don’t think we should be unduly concerned about the [Icomos UK] visit,” he said. “There’s been a lot of fear and alarm and I have seen nothing from Unesco or from their advisers that suggests that’s the case.

“It’s important that we do welcome new ideas and new developments into the World Heritage site. We do need new developments.”

The St James development set to transform the east end of Princes Street has been widely criticised over the decision to use limestone cladding for the buildings rather than sandstone – the material traditionally used in the New Town.

And the swirling “ribbon” hotel at its centre has also come under fire for “breaching” the skyline with its bold design, making it visible from a number of key viewpoints.

Mr Simpson, a leading conservation architect, labelled the St James development an “utterly shocking proposal” and insisted “any knowledgeable person” would be “appalled” at the scale of its central hotel.

And he said the plans to turn Calton Hill’s A-listed Royal High School into a luxury hotel could be viewed as a “test case” on how Edinburgh handles its World Heritage status.

Willie Gray Muir, chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust and one of the main driving forces behind rival plans to turn the historic building into a new home for St Mary’s Music Scool, said the hotel proposals would “destroy the thing they are trying to save” and pose a “very strong risk” to the city’s World Heritage status.

He said: “There’s a precedent for this in the Dresden Elbe Valley. [Unesco] are perfectly happy to take that sanction against a site they don’t feel comfortable is working within the management plans.

“I think there’s a very strong case that’s been made for a first-class hotel in the city – but let’s choose somewhere else to build it. We can have it all.”

Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, also warned that residents should be “very, very worried” about the city’s heritage standing if the plans for the Royal High School get the go-ahead.

But for David Birrell, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, a “balanced view” is needed – maintaining “Edinburgh’s tradition for creating economic wealth through change while preserving its history”.

Ian Perry, the council’s planning leader, said World Heritage status was something the council is “immensely proud of”, with management of the site – which takes in much of the Old and New Towns – taken “very seriously”.

He said: “We welcome the opportunity to discuss how we aim to protect this status, while at the same time developing our capital city to meet economic needs.”

Comment: We can have best of both worlds

By John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh

OVER the last 20 years, Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage Status has become ingrained in the city’s DNA and is now very much part of its appeal to visitors and residents alike, yet I feel strongly that if the city is to progress and maintain our global status, positive development is necessary.

Over the decades, World Heritage status has played an immeasurable part in shaping the very identity of the city, bringing in millions of tourists, generating billions of pounds for the economy, nourishing civic pride and crucially, protecting and conserving one of the most iconic cityscapes in the world.

World Heritage status has successfully safeguarded not just a handful of listed buildings and monuments, but literally streets and streets of high quality architecture. That’s unique and I’m incredibly proud and thankful for that.

Yet there is a balance that needs to be addressed. As a city we simply can’t continue to grow and flourish without embracing change and building new developments. The fDi Global Cities of the Future Awards 2014-15 ranked Edinburgh as the third best small and medium-sized city in the world. Development and change naturally come with that and should be embraced, enthusiastically and wholeheartedly.

The inescapable fact is that Edinburgh is in desperate need of more large, five-star hotels to enable it to cater for demand from both the leisure and business tourism market. They will strengthen the appeal of our city from international visitors from key North American and Asian markets as well as facilitating the city’s ability to host multi-million-pound global association conferences and events.

This is about a peaceful and symbiotic relationship between Edinburgh’s World Heritage status and the city’s need to grow and progress. There is of course an enormous responsibility to ensure that all developments are done sympathetically and sensitively, but done right, we don’t need to contemplate sacrificing our World Heritage status. We can have the best of both worlds.

With all planning applications, there is an enormous responsibility. I know Edinburgh City Council, working alongside Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage, is acutely aware of its significance. Unesco World Heritage has played a crucial role in Edinburgh’s success over the last 20 years, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

Comment: What has Unesco done for us? Less than nothing

David Black, co-founder of the Southside Association

EDINBURGH is in trouble, serious trouble. Until recently it seemed that some of the council’s planning decisions were a re-run of the 1960s and 70s. No more – despite the loss of George Square and the grim St James’s Centre, these were enlightened times by comparison. Now it feels more like the 1540s, when Henry VIII’s army sacked the town.

In the 20 years leading up to Unesco World Heritage Site designation, things were improving markedly. The Old Town and Southside became conservation areas, and the New Town had parliamentary protection. When Debenhams wanted a new store in Princes Street, they not only kept the Victorian facades, but also the grand internal staircase. Since Unesco designation was conferred in the mid-1990s, the built heritage of Edinburgh has been savaged beyond belief. In St Andrew Square, three B-listed buildings were recently smashed down and no-one, including Unesco, bothered to stop it.

So what has Unesco done for us? The answer is less than nothing. In 2008 a Unesco inspector arrived to investigate the mediocrity of the Caltongate scheme – and concluded, unbelievably, that our heritage was being well looked after by a council which had just built itself a spectacularly banal new HQ building, Waverley Court.

Since then, matters have gone from bad to worse. It simply isn’t possible for either the city or the Scottish Government to exercise an impartial judgement over the St James development when they’re subsidising it with £61.4 million of taxpayers’ money. In gratitude, the developer – US pension giant TIAA-CREF, which has $800 billion of assets under management – gives us a “copper spiral” hotel which would embarrass the Las Vegas Strip, and stretches credulity to breaking point by claiming there isn’t enough UK sandstone for their needs, so they’ll just use cheaper vanilla limestone instead.

The architect behind St Andrew Square now wants high-rise “Inca terrace” additions for one of the most important Neoclassical buildings anywhere, the Royal High School.

Given that there’s a funded proposal for a music school ready to go, it would be a folly for yet another hotel scheme to be given the green light – but with this council, who can tell what might happen?

• David Black is former chairman and co-founder of the Southside Association, and a co-founder of the Old Town Association. In March 2015 he submitted a report to the UN Board of Auditors regarding the failure of Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage Status. He was informed that responsibility for auditing Unesco lies with the Auditor General for France. No further action has been taken.