Graham Birse: Royal High hotel plans best choice

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We should all be excited by the prospect of a world-leading hotel brand occupying the Royal High School site in Edinburgh.

Why? There are three compelling reasons: First, the jobs and high-value spending that only comes to cities that host an international five-star brand; second, the opportunity to regenerate an architectural gem that has, sadly, fallen into disrepair; and third, to prove that Edinburgh is a city in which 
imaginative modern architecture can sit alongside the old within a World Heritage site.

The prospect of a global brand hotel for Edinburgh is therefore important, not just for the Capital, but for the whole of Scotland. Significantly, the project developers have a shortlist of three operators who have indicated their interest in locating in Edinburgh. As yet, we don’t know who they are, but we do know that they do not operate in Scotland. Exclusive, high-value global hospitality brands such as Intercontinental or Mandarin Oriental bring with them an international clientele whose spending locally and influence globally is worth much more than the average visitor. Brands like these only operate a few exclusive properties on each continent – and they are prepared to invest significant sums to locate themselves on prime sites – good news for a building that is now deteriorating rapidly.

A hotel of this calibre will undoubtedly lift Edinburgh higher up the league table of destination cities that have the capacity to attract destination brand hotels. Over the last decade in Edinburgh what we’ve seen in complex city centre redevelopment sites is a hotel as the cornerstone of the development, underpinning its viability. However, in Edinburgh, most of these have been mid-range hotel brands – and while these are very welcome, we have neglected the five-star market and its capacity to support conferences at the EICC and stimulate the year-round tourism economy. An exclusive five-star global hotel is a big statement for Edinburgh internationally – and it is important our planners and public agencies recognise the opportunity – for the building, for the economy and for Edinburgh.

There is quite rightly an onus on the developers of the proposed new hotel to clearly demonstrate that a sustainable restoration and dynamic new build is not only possible but desirable within a world heritage site. A few years ago, Francisco Banderin, the Unesco Director of World Heritage, delivered a lecture in Edinburgh and spoke about what is and what is not acceptable on world heritage sites, quoting many examples of the good and the bad from around the world. What was clear form his lecture is that Unesco believes that it is not only possible, but desirable, to create appropriate new-build architecture in a world heritage environment, provided it is compatible with its environment. At the Royal High School, we have the developer, the finance and ambition in place to position high-quality modern alongside the old – and save one of Edinburgh’s most famous buildings for future generations.

Issues of design, function and form are obviously extremely important on such a prime site; but we must not lose sight of another important issue – the future employment and economic contribution of the development to our city.

The estimated 640 local jobs and £27 million annually in GDP likely to be generated for Edinburgh by the Royal High School hotel is significantly higher than the contribution from other economic activity. More-over, the hospitality industry has the capacity to create employment and career opportunities for our young people at a time when youth unemployment is still significantly higher than the adult average.

I visited the Royal High School building recently. The last time I had been inside was at a meeting five years ago. I was dismayed by the deterioration in the condition of the property since then. The roof is leaking, damp is evident everywhere and the structure is clearly in need of restoration and repair if it is to be saved. This is the best opportunity we are likely to get to restore the Royal High School to its former glory and provide Edinburgh with a five-star jewel in its tourism crown at the same time.

• Graham Birse is director of the Edinburgh Institute at Edinburgh Napier University