John McLellan: Royal High site battle could turn ugly

Could the old Royal High become a new home for St Mary's Music School pupils. Picture: Neil Hanna
Could the old Royal High become a new home for St Mary's Music School pupils. Picture: Neil Hanna
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He has become the bogey man of the battle of Craighouse, but now Willie Gray Muir has emerged at the forefront of the fight to halt the luxury hotel plan for the old Royal High School.

Gray Muir runs Sundial Properties, which specialises in the restoration of old properties and was responsible for the conversion of the old Leith Academy into flats, and is now driving forward a similar transformation of the former Napier University campus on Craighouse Road.

Now Gray Muir has been named as the chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, set up earlier this year to find an alternative use for the old Royal High after an angry public meeting about the hotel proposal.

It pits him against Bruce Hare, the chief executive of Duddingston House Properties which is behind the hotel plan, and as the two men share very similar views on development and preservation this will be a very different tussle to anything seen before.

RHSPT has just served notice to the City Council that it will be submitting a plan to turn it into a new home for the St Mary’s Music School and it has some serious backers, most notably arts philanthropist Carol Grigor.

American-born Mrs Grigor made Scotland her home many years ago and is responsible for the Dunard Fund which was built on the fortune created by her industrialist father. Through Dunard, she has channelled over £20m into Scottish arts, with some £10m going to the International Festival, much of it on major music events.

The school has made no attempt to hide its glee at the prospect, describing it as a “welcome development” on its website, and going on to say it “could be fitting that a landmark building should become the home of a national institution.”

First established in 1880 as the choir school for St Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral – pupils are still known as choristers – it is tucked away at the end of Lansdowne Crescent in the West End and has just 78 pupils, all of whom must pass an audition to enter. A day place in the senior school costs £11,950 a year, comparable with the rates at the other big private Edinburgh schools.

Its distinction is that pupils from less well-off backgrounds can qualify for financial assistance from the Scottish Government through its “aided places” scheme for gifted artists, retained after the Labour government abolished the wider assisted places scheme immediately on election in 1997.

Supporters of the plan, including former Scottish Arts Council chairman and ex-Scotsman editor Magnus Linklater, have described it as an “almost bizarrely perfect fit” and it’s not difficult to see why.

Apart from the fact there can hardly be objections to using old school buildings for a school, such a small number of pupils would not be a problem on so restricted a site and it doesn’t take much imagination to see the assembly hall as an auditorium.

Converting the buildings would run into millions and the plan is to run a design competiton, but I understand the funds behind the new scheme are sufficient to cover the building cost.

The plan is to sell the current school site for residential development in an area where prices are keen -- a two bedroom flat on Coates Gardens has just gone on the market with Savills at offers over £325,000 – but the proceeds would go into the education and bursary budgets, not the buildings

Gray Muir is an expert in residential conversions but the trust board is very sensitive to any accusation of conflict of interest and so Sundial would have to compete for the business in a transparent process not involving Gray Muir.

But this is not the whole story.

First of all there are the stipulations laid down by the council when the competition to find a new use was run five years ago. That included things like sustainability and job creation, and while a well-funded trust-run school might be sustainable, the number of permanent jobs the transfer of an existing institution might create might not be as great as that for the hotel plan now in consultation.

Then there is the deal with Duddingston House Properties, which has agreed a 125-year lease with the City Council if permission is granted for its scheme. My understanding is the plans produced by architect Gareth Hoskins have not gone down well with key councillors, so what will happen if the politicians get cold feet and decide the whole hotel idea was a bad one and the school an easier route?

That’s possible, given the fury over the DHP proposal (“an offence to the reputation of the capital”, according to Linklater) and the angry protests which have followed the decision to proceed with other schemes on controversial sites.

But a U-turn would mean DHP had spent millions and wasted five years on the understanding that the principle, if not the detail, of a hotel plan was acceptable. DHP are remaining tight-lipped about the prospect of a change of heart by the Council, saying only that they are proceeding in accordance with the agreement, but if I was in charge I’d be instructing the lawyers to put the contracts under the microscope and get ready for action.

Then there is the private school principle. A private music school might suit some New Townies, but it might not be the public access some of those opposed to the hotel have spoken about and it’s far away from the costly gallery or museum ideas.

For one thing it would be private -- left-wingers will love the idea of an iconic Edinburgh landmark given over to what they would regard as a symbol of selectivity and elitism -- and secondly open access to a school is difficult, especially one with boarders.

Despite the excitement about the St Mary’s flit, DHP believe the game is far from over for the hotel and the revised plan to go forward for planning permission has yet to be revealed.

DHP’s team remain convinced a silent majority have no difficulty with their scheme and an adjusted proposal will get through. Now I’m not so sure.

A CHANGE WILL DO EVERYONE GOOD

It was a treat to visit Goldenacre on Tuesday night for the Heriot’s v Barbarians 125th anniversary match. It was another convincing argument for summer sport.

Hundreds of spectators ringed the pitch for as conclusive an illustration of the gulf between professional and amateur rugby – it finished 31-97 – as you’ll hope to see but it mattered not because the sun on people’s backs put smiles on their faces.

And being only the width of a rope away from the big buys gave the crowd a much better experience than in the professional grounds where the power-drunk hi-vis jackets would have canaries at the closeness of the spectators.

Going back to Friday, February 13 and the Edinburgh v Ospreys match attracted a similar crowd to a similar ground at Myreside, but no-one enjoyed a barbecue and no-one was hanging around in the biting cold for a beer and a chat. There were, however, plenty of power-drunk hi-vis jackets having canaries at the closeness of the spectators.

For Scottish club rugby to thrive it needs to get out of the cold and there is nothing to stop it except fear of change.

So to hell with the old days and vested interests, if you have solutions which will make the experience better for your customers, please get on and do it.

BOROUGHMUIR’S RIPE FOR EAGER DEVELOPERS

You’ve had the campaigns against Caltongate and Edinburgh Accies, the final skirmishes are still being fought in the woods around Craighouse, and the Battle of Calton Hill is just erupting.

Now the war on development is about to open up on another front – Boroughmuir High School.

A public meeting at the school organised by Merchiston Community Council on Tuesday, May 5 will discuss a new plan by the arts charity Out of the Blue to run the building as a community arts enterprise.

Founded in 1994, Out of the Blue took over the Dalmeny Street Drill Hall in Leith in 2004 as a community arts resource. It also runs the famous Bongo Club, once based in the New Street bus garage before it was demolished to make way for Caltongate, and now based beneath the Central Library on the Cowgate.

It receives grants from Creative Scotland and the city council amongst others to provide studio and rehearsal space and also runs a cafe at the Drill Hall.

The problem is that the old Boroughmuir building is being actively marketed by the council which needs to maximise its return, as much to cover the £35 million cost of building the new school as anything else.

It also desperately needs to find ways of hitting its housebuilding targets. Estimates are that it could go for £15m, although the wariness of developers is as much a factor here as it would be for St Mary’s School, but the sale details say the site has “potential . . . for the development of new buildings within the existing playground”.

It’s the new building aspect which is both the key to the price and the likely source of local opposition. Parking is already at a premium in Bruntsfield/Viewforth, Bruntsfield Primary is also extremely popular and increasing residential density in an already busy area will be the focus of local opposition.

It’s doubtful, but not impossible, that Out of the Blue could match a £15m bid by a commercial housebuilder so the debate will centre on community impact. But my bet is that after a bitter feud the first residents will get their keys in 2021.