JOhn McLellan: Hotel wars turning ugly

The St James Centre is a bigger eyesore than what is being proposed to replace it. Picture: Julie Bull

The St James Centre is a bigger eyesore than what is being proposed to replace it. Picture: Julie Bull

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The Edinburgh Hotel War is about to go global as the opponents of the controversial St James and Royal High School plans call in the United Nations.

The warning to the city council and the Scottish Government is clear – let these developments go ahead and Edinburgh will lose its Unesco World Heritage Site status.

I am told this is not a hollow threat, and the conservation lobby already believes the city’s World Heritage recognition will be withdrawn if either of the schemes proceeds. St James already has permission, so the matter is in the hands of the Scottish Government which can overturn the decision. The council won’t decide on the Royal High until December.

If true, it’s an extraordinary position given there has been no investigation and a rumoured Unesco fact-finding visit has yet to take place.

Campaigners cite the case of Dresden, which lost its designation after a bridge was built across the Elbe because it was deemed to have damaged the “universal values” of the historic river plain. Not that Dresden has noticed because the visitors are still pouring in to see the glories of the restored Baroque city centre.

The same campaigners have also cited examples of places like Amsterdam where, they seem to claim, such civic vandalism as is about to be inflicted on Edinburgh would never be tolerated. Is this the same Amsterdam which put the infamous Bath Tub extension on the side of the Stedelijk Museum?

Or what about the Tower of London? Unesco didn’t strip that of World Heritage status because of the Shard, Gherkin, Walkie Talkie or the other modern buildings which now dwarf the fortress. Or does Unesco consider the Luftwaffe a reasonable excuse?

And presumably Unesco inspectors saw the power station cooling towers looming above Ironbridge before they gave it their seal of approval.

The existing St James Centre is much more of an eyesore than what is being proposed, so how the new building can be a threat to something which was previously granted is hard to understand.

There is a case to be argued that the latest Gareth Hoskins designs for the Royal High School frames and actually enhances the old school and does nothing to detract from the cluster of monuments above on the hill itself. Does it damage the “universal values” of the Old or New Town, whatever that means?

What it’s supposed to signify is contained in the ten criteria laid down by Unesco, which themselves are reviewed to reflect changing attitudes. The standards are open to wide interpretation; things like “to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” or “to be an outstanding example of a type of building”.

I’m no great fan of the turd, toilet toll, walnut whip or whatever you want to call it, but is it a threat to “an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture”? I don’t think so.

Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. The Scott Monument was said by Charles Dickens, with perhaps a hint of jealousy, to be like “the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground”. Art critic John Ruskin agreed, calling it a “small, vulgar Gothic steeple”.

And there is the much-quoted Cockburn Association view of the North British Hotel, now The Balmoral, attacked 100 years ago because of “the sense of disproportion which its height and breadth conveys”.

Even the Eiffel Tower met with furious indignation, described by writer Guy de Maupassant as “a skinny pyramid of iron ladders . . . which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney”.

It all sounds very familiar. From what I can see the new Edinburgh buildings do not impact on any of the Unesco qualifications, but they are so woolly it’s not difficult to argue the opposite. The key is in the list of what they call “ascertained danger” which includes “serious deterioration of architectural or town-planning coherence”.

Maybe the conservation lobby would actually enjoy seeing Edinburgh stripped of its Unesco badge, like some sort of disgraced French army officer.

Perhaps it’s worse than that; running out of arguments are they actively seeking its removal so at least they can turn round and say “we told you so”?

Leading the charge is James Simpson, the Edinburgh-based conservation architect who, as Scotland’s vice-president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, is the local link man with the Unesco committee which is said to be planning a fact-finding visit in the next few weeks.

Simpson says that Edinburgh is now facing a crisis because of what he says are threats to the quality of the city as an international 
destination, which is a sweeping generalisation if ever there was one.

So who is on the fact-finding visit, what is their itinery, who will they be speaking to?

But if the Unesco people only listen to James Simpson and the Cockburn Association then no wonder they think there is a problem and the gong will probably go. And if they only hear what they are told to listen to, it won’t be worth anything anyway.

MAKING TRACKS IS HARDER THAN YOU’D THINK

IF Abellio/ScotRail thought it could get away with putting two-carriage services on the Borders Railway after so much fanfare greeted its launch, it was a public relations misjudgement on an industrial scale.

Very quickly, word got out that the carriages were packed and trains delayed as passengers tried to squeeze on board, so scores of people looking forward to a scenic choo-choo through the Borders were instead forced to wait an extra 15 minutes and then stand nose-to-nose all the way.

If there is one way to reduce overcrowding it’s to let potential customers believe the services are unreliable and uncomfortable, but wisely ScotRail chose the alternative, which was to find extra carriages. But it betrays a hard-nosed attitude towards the line which, when the excitement of the launch subsides, will only need bigger trains for the handful of peak-time services.

It was not by accident that the national tourism agency VisitScotland co-ordinated the undoubtedly historic launch because, as I’ve argued before, the low frequency of services at rush hour means it’s fine for day-trippers and shoppers but can never truly become a commuter route.

And although it is still too early to be definitive, the Registers of Scotland has just reported that the line has made no impact on the housing markets within five miles. In Midlothian, the volume of sales has actually been ten per cent lower than the rest of the county since the line was confirmed.

Apart from stimulating housing markets, the most common argument in favour of the line is that it should help take cars off the roads, especially around Sheriffhall, but how two three-carriage services an hour in either direction will achieve that is anyone’s guess.

Had the line been twin-track no further than Gorebridge, with more rush-hour services for places like Eskbank and good park and ride it might have happened, and it’s an argument which finds much favour in private from people who say something different in public.

That being said, adding heavy rail services aimed at new Edinburgh commuters hits the buffers of capacity at Waverley because of the limited track space in and out. It is one of several reasons the revival of the South Suburban line is likely to remain a non-starter. It’s a good talker for my old colleague Miles Briggs, the Scottish Conservatives’ candidate for Edinburgh Southern who raised the issue in the Evening News this week, but I’m afraid he’s on to a loser. Apart from the fact most people want to go into town and will get there far faster on the bus than waiting to go round a circle as far east as Newcraighall, the city centre tracks are already near capacity.

The option of a light rail system which could run on heavy rails or tram tracks has been suggested as a way of expanding the tram line and reopening the South Sub to passengers. Such a system was mooted when the future of the Borders Railway project was still up in the air; instead of tunnels and bridges, it was argued the tracks would just run along or across the roads.

Of course we now know it’s not as simple as that.

Even if a tram/train service was technically able to run from Haymarket and on to the South Sub, it’s unlikely Network Rail would agree to trams cutting across the main rail route every five minutes.

To expand Edinburgh’s rail services meaningfully will need another hub, such as existed until the 1960s at the Caledonian Hotel, and apart from the fact there are no suitable city centre sites left, the cost would be prohibitive.

Is there a case for turning the Meggetland depot into a passenger hub to upgrade the line out through Curriehill and revive the South Sub? The cost would be huge for something stopping well short of the city centre.

Housing market more fragile?

House-hunters looking for a bargain might be tempted to go searching in Liberton or Currie if the latest figures from the Edinburgh Solicitors Property Centre are anything to go by.

The average cost of a three-bedroom house in Liberton/Gilmerton fell by a remarkable 15.6 per cent in June, July and August compared to the same period last year, dropping from £233,160 to £196,899.

The same size of house in Currie/Balerno/Juniper Green dropped 14.3 per cent from £274,523 to £235,314.

This suggests that the market is a lot more fragile than some might have believed but it also might indicate ongoing issues with infrastructure and amenities; I used to live in Liberton and bus services were not the best compared to places like Morningside. Bad publicity about the state of Liberton High might not have helped either.

What is intriguing about the latest ESPC bulletin is how much store is placed on properties achieving their home value report price. Rather than a sign of the market picking up, isn’t this just an indication that surveyors are calling the market correctly, whatever the price achieved?