Heritage fears as Unesco look at hotel plans

An artist's impression of the proposed St James Hotel. Picture: comp

An artist's impression of the proposed St James Hotel. Picture: comp

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IT’S fast approaching judgement day for the Capital as Unesco advisors descend on Edinburgh tomorrow to examine the impact of recent planning decisions on the city’s World Heritage status.

Controversial proposals to transform Calton Hill’s old Royal High School into a luxury hotel and designs for the nearby St James development have been at the centre of a growing storm in recent months, amid claims they could threaten Edinburgh’s heritage standing.

Both schemes have been slammed by conservation groups – with the Royal High School plans blasted as 
“significantly damaging” by Historic Scotland.

Tomorrow a team of three inspectors from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), which advises Unesco, will hit the city for a two-day visit to assess the impact of the developments on Edinburgh’s World Heritage status.

The experts – which include Icomos-UK’s vice-president for Scotland, James Simpson – are expected to meet with key players on Tuesday before taking a tour of the sites the next day.

They have the power to refer any criticisms to the body’s international committee, which could then prompt Unesco to launch its own investigation – and eventually strip the city of its coveted status.

But Mr Simpson declined to give details of exactly who the trio will be meeting – and who the other two members of his party will be. He said: “Icomos-UK works in a very behind-the-scenes way, and not in a public way.

“This is an exploratory visit to see for ourselves what we think of the situation with regards to these two applications and whether or not they are a danger to the World Heritage status.”

However, the Evening News understands that so far neither of the developers behind the St James Quarter and Royal High School plans have been approached for meetings.

David Orr of the Urbanist Group, who, alongside Duddingston House Properties, are behind the Royal High School hotel plans, said: “As yet we have not been contacted by Icomos but we would be very happy to meet with them whilst they are in Edinburgh to explain in detail our proposals to restore the former Royal High School into a world class hotel.”

Meanwhile, Adam 
Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, confirmed he would be meeting with Icomos-UK – insisting the two unknown experts had a “deep knowledge” of World Heritage management.

And a city council spokeswoman also confirmed planning officials were scheduled to meet the visiting specialists tomorrow.

Last week Icomos-UK’s James Simpson faced claims of a “conflict of interest” over the fact he is a founding partner of the architectural firm pushing alternative plans to turn the A-listed Royal High School into a new home for St Mary’s Music School. He said he had “entirely separated” himself from 
Simpson & Brown Architects’ role in the project.

Icomos-UK are the UK national committee of Icomos – the official advisor to Unesco on cultural World Heritage Sites – and an independent charity.