David Birrell: Heritage status must strike right balance

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Over the years, our heritage has been protected by many to ensure that what makes Edinburgh unique is not lost. Edinburgh’s people, its businesses and cultural institutions all benefit from it, as do visitors to this wonderful city.

The visit of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) has sparked a vigorous debate about that heritage. The task of Icomos is to advise Unesco about the conservation, protection, use and enhancement of our buildings and monuments. These are complex issues and our first priority must be to protect our World Heritage Status. We have one of the finest urban environments in the world and there isn’t a business in Edinburgh that wouldn’t support a bid to preserve that status.

The issue is one of quality. Any fundamental changes to Edinburgh should have to pass the highest quality threshold to be added to our streetscape.

This is not a new debate. How many of the buildings and streets found in the Capital today would be there had it not been for the process of change seen throughout the history of the city? Nor is the debate unique to Edinburgh. Cityscapes are changing all the time and new architecture is seldom far from controversy in that process. It affects communities all over the world.

Our aim as guardians of this great city must surely be to preserve its virtues while allowing room for progress and modernisation. Having the highest of standards is the only way to be sure of that.

The city has succeeded in this respect for years. Many of our new developments are a source of huge pride and work well with our built heritage. The new Edinburgh Castle restaurant built by Historic Scotland, for example, changed a profile that had been unaltered for hundreds of years but did so with restrained elegance.

We must give our decision-makers the unvarnished facts to make the right decisions for the right reasons. Princes Street itself was initially a row of town houses before commerce quickly took over – change itself can be positive. That said, those same decision-makers must scrutinise all proposals for new buildings. In weighing up the benefits, they must consider not only the enhancements or otherwise to the city’s heritage, but also how new plans will affect the economy and modernise the city, allowing it to continue to compete internationally. The decisions must take into account all perspectives but with the quality of the plans at their heart.

A balanced view is needed. We must maintain Edinburgh’s tradition for creating economic wealth through change while preserving its history.

David Birrell is chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce