THE decision to refuse planning permission for a £75m luxury hotel on the site of the former Royal High School was nail-biting stuff. The council chamber was packed and my Twitter feed advised that in board rooms and sitting rooms across the city, folk were glued to the webcast of democracy in action.
It’s not surprising that planning issues continue to engage people in Edinburgh, given our World Heritage status, our growing population, increasing development pressures and the seeming lack of a coherent vision for the city.
Of course, a planning application requires to be judged on how it complies with planning policies. And this particular application just didn’t. There were gasps of astonishment from the public gallery as images showed the impact the hotel extensions would have on Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece.
The New Town and Broughton Community Council, Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and local residents’ associations raised concerns and spoke in opposition.
Gordon Dewar from Edinburgh Airport, in supporting the development, described the Royal High as an asset, albeit a wasted one. He’s right. I’d say there’s universal agreement that this fabulous building should be preserved.
Those who did support the proposal focused on Edinburgh’s “brand”, and spoke of customers who have a “high-net-worth”. Yet the value of Edinburgh’s World Heritage site is valued at £1.2-£1.6 billion a year. Research from Edinburgh’s Tourism Action Group tells us that 68 per cent of visitors say that it’s Edinburgh’s history that makes them want to visit and that the most popular activity, at 93 per cent, is walking around the city.
VisitScotland research suggests that the main priority segment for Edinburgh is “affluent southern explorers”. We are told that they seek to “broaden their minds” with “authentic experiences” and that their holiday and travel choices are based on lifestyle choices that are “not materialistic”.
So, let’s have an honest conversation about how many luxury hotels the city needs and where they should be situated. Let’s look closely at the information about visitor night numbers and demand. The cross-party group on tourism, local and national tourism bodies, those working in tourism and of course, Edinburgh’s citizens all have a role to play in Edinburgh’s continuing success.
Edinburgh, first and foremost, is a city for living and working in, studying in, settling down in. It is immensely attractive to visitors too. Gordon Dewar wants tourism growth to focus on India and China. I’d like to see far more of a focus on the domestic market.
Let’s continue to ensure that each and every visitor to Edinburgh knows that they are very welcome indeed, regardless of their “net worth”.
We’re famed as the home of Hogmanay. People flock from around the globe for our historic skyline and our warm welcome. Quality hospitality is about more than gold-plating. And by having a plan for making use of our historic buildings we can continue to offer explorers the authentic experiences they want while protecting the place we call home.
Alison Johnstone is the Scottish Green MSP for Lothian