John McLellan: Race for Royal High School gets serious

The old Royal High School. Picture: Greg Macvean
The old Royal High School. Picture: Greg Macvean
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Architect could end up as the winner whether hotel scheme or St Mary’s School gets the go-ahead for Old Royal High School site

What is already surely the city ­centre’s most controversial proposal could be about to get dirty, as decision time gets closer for the Old Royal High School.

Renowned architect Gareth Hoskins is in the process of finalising what are said to be significantly different designs for the hotel scheme put forward by Duddingston House Properties (DHP), although the development team led by Bruce Hare has no plans to make anything public before the end of summer.

However, an anonymous source said to be close to DHP has been talking to the delightfully scurrilous Broughton Spurtle website about the rival plan being assembled on behalf of St Mary’s Music School by the Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT).

As previously reported, the RHSPT was formed after an angry public consultation meeting to discuss the first Hoskins hotel design at the George Street Church earlier this year.

Horrified by what they saw, the great and the good of the New Town were galvanised into action and the Trust was the result, led by conservation developer Willie Gray Muir of Sundial Properties (which is also behind the conversion of the Leith Academy building).

Their plan to make the Old Royal High the new home of St Mary’s Music School is largely funded by arts philanthropist Carol Grigor of the Dunard Fund, which supports many big productions every year at the Edinburgh International Festival, (EIF) including The Magic Flute this year.

The Dunard Fund will help bankroll the acquisition and conversion of the buildings, while the proceeds from the sale of the existing school in the West End will boost its education fund and pay for talented pupils from less affluent backgrounds.

But recently in The Spurtle, a DHP source questioned whether the RHSPT had enough money to carry out its plans and why there was no business plan.

That a detailed business plan has yet to be published is because the proposal only came together at the 11th hour, and it’s certainly fair to question why it wasn’t proposed earlier if, as its supporters claim, it’s a perfect match.

However, there is a set of outline plans which were displayed at a consultation meeting at the Canongate Kirk last month, attended by more than 100 people. From questionnaires returned on the night, the public was apparently unanimously positive.

As for the availability of cash, data held by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator shows that the Dunard Fund reported a massively increased income of more than £18 million last year and spent just £2.6m. The previous year its income was £3.6m and expenditure just under £2m.

It is therefore sitting on a substantial pile of cash – and it has a long track record of charitable donations to arts causes. In 2006, Ms Grigor was credited with saving the EIF with a £500,000 bail-out when it was gripped by a financial crisis.

Carol Grigor is also a feisty individual – as she showed by her angry reaction to criticism of her non-domiciled tax status in 2008 – and questioning either her resources or resolve is likely to be counter-productive.

But however well-funded or desirable the St Mary’s School plan may be, the reality of the current position is that if the hotel plan gets planning permission then it’s game over for the RHSPT.

The law is such that the members of the city’s development management committee cannot reject the hotel plan on the basis that a better idea is round the corner; they can only reject or approve the hotel scheme on its own merits.

And because of the complex way in which the DHP proposal came about – being declared the preferred developer after a competition for the site – unless the reasons for rejection are copper-bottomed, the city could face a substantial claim for compensation.

The intricacies of the planning system do not appear at this stage to favour either side, and although the original Hoskins hotel plans have not been the subject of public discussion by city planners, the word was that the scale of the new wings made rejection almost certain.

Most of the elevations produced by Gareth Hoskins show what a skilled architect he is, given the almost impossible job of accommodating more than 100 rooms on such a difficult site in a way that complements rather than conflicts with the historic buildings. The irony is that it will take someone as expert as Hoskins to prove that turning the site into a viable hotel is incompatible with its surroundings, if that is what councillors decide.

The further irony is that Gareth Hoskins was previously working on new designs for St Mary’s on its current site, and if the hotel is rejected as the school project moves forward, I wouldn’t bet against Hoskins remaining as the lead architect.

The RHSPT proposal involves the replacement of the later gym and refectory buildings on the right of the site, which will therefore face similar challenges to the hotel design. But the scheme guarantees not only that the buildings will be no higher than the current ones but also that there will be no construction on the gatehouse side.

The idea is that a competition will be held to design the new east wing and clearly Hoskins and his team will have a head start if they wished to be considered.

Two other questions raised by the DHP source might well strike a chord with some politicians. Firstly, if such a prominent building should be home to, as it was described, “78 kids at an elite private school”, and secondly whether the scheme would “invigorate” the district?

The answer to the first really depends on your attitude to private schools and elitism, because for the buildings to work it has always got to be small and it can’t be anything other than appropriate for buildings originally designed as a school. As the only private (but not for profit) school in Scotland where pupils still receive state-funded support but where entry is by audition, it is the closest thing Scotland has to a “fame academy”.

And as for invigorating the district, that rather depends on whether the district needs or wants to be invigorated. Planning for calm seems to me to be as valid an aim, given the bustle it is hoped both Calton, sorry Waverleygate, and the new St James quarter will bring.

But the most revealing thing about the DHP briefing to the Spurtle is that it happened at all. It suggests to me they are worried and that the gloves might be coming off. That would be a pity. For the RHSPT, the approach is not so much to keep their powder dry, but not to have any threat of firepower at all.

They are preparing their case on the basis they get the chance to make it because the council decides not to progress with the hotel, a decision that could easily slip back to next year.

If the hotel does go ahead, the RHSPT will be bitterly disappointed but will have lost nothing. However, no matter how good the new Hoskins designs may be, the hotel scheme faces an almighty battle.

A transformation

Demolition work is soon to start at Craighouse, with the boiler house and coal stores of the old hospital the first to go, followed by the ugly, recently-built library at the top of the hill.

Meanwhile, rot treatment of the historic buildings has started, a process which will cost around £400,000 such is the extent of the damage caused by the years of delay.

Next step will be the roads and drainage infrastructure which goes out to tender in the next few weeks.

Airport is still seeing turbulence

Improvements at Edinburgh Airport’s security hall still seem to be working; less than ten minutes it took to get through on a busy holiday Saturday last weekend – improved to the extent that one American going through at the same time as our gang reckoned every airport should adopt the same system.

But of course lots of things have to go right for the airport experience to be smooth, and so thanks to some chap losing his passport and ground crew being less efficient than expected, we spent an hour on the runway because the landing slot at the other end had been lost.

We’re due back in Edinburgh at 1am on Sunday morning, so let’s hope all those bits and pieces fit together or it’s going to be a very grumpy end to the holiday.

Poo says it was an insult?

Supporters of the proposed design for the hotel at the new St James Centre felt I was being a bit harsh when a few weeks ago I compared it to a turd.

But it has been pointed out to me that far from being an insult it might have been its inspiration, and we actually have German illustrator Wolf Erlbruch and his book The Little Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business to thank.

The plans come before the city’s development management committee at the end of August. Bound to create a stink.