Martin Hannan: So what sort of city do we want?

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On THURSDAY a sub-committee of councillors will decide on the proposal to a build a luxury hotel in and around the former Royal High School building on Calton Hill.

There has been a great deal of hot air expended on this proposal which has its roots in the council’s decision five years ago to appoint Duddingston House Properties in effect as the preferred bidder for the site.

I have made my feelings known about their proposal. I just do not think it is the right plan for Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece of a building because it effectively masks that very building.

On Thursday, our councillors will be asked to decide on what sort of city we want – it’s that big a decision. Either they go with what I acknowledge is an ambitious plan and ignore just about every planning policy, or they accept that the plan is for the wrong development in the wrong place.

We have already seen the St James Quarter plans being approved despite a load of objections, but I accept that at least the proposals for that site improve the quality of the carbuncle.

The plan up for consideration on Thursday does not improve anything other than take a disused building off the “at risk” list. The new hotel would fundamentally alter the character and nature of a very important part of the city, and I think that would be a mistake.

Having covered planning issues on and off for 35 years and having at one time worked with Edinburgh planning department on various matters, I can honestly say I have never seen such strong and cogently argued objections to a proposal.

They are best summed up in Edinburgh World Heritage’s view, which is stark and uncompromising: “The Royal High School is a building of exceptional and unquestionable architectural interest carefully composed and positioned. The proposals will in effect both diminish the building and remove its setting, placing buildings up to six stories sitting on a raised plinth on either side.

“It in effect turns Hamilton’s building into an object, rather than an integrated part of an historic urban landscape. Our view is that the proposals are exceptionally insensitive to the importance of the building.”

The sub text of their comment is this – approve this plan and you can kiss goodbye to Edinburgh’s World Heritage status. I don’t know whether that would happen, and it certainly would not take place overnight, but there is a real threat to the World Heritage title which, despite ill-informed comments to the contrary, is hugely important for Edinburgh.

I have nothing but sympathy for Duddingston House Properties who I suspect have been led up the garden path by people who should know better. They have clearly spent huge sums on their plans and at most other locations we would be cheering them on and saying “wow”. But this is not “most locations” and this is not just any old building.

As it happens I was present when the British government’s Scottish branch office under the Conservatives gave the building back to the City of Edinburgh District Council.

I have a clear memory of councillors and officials saying the building must be put to a good public use. The hotel plan does not do that, the St Mary’s Music School project does.

Crossing criticism a bridge too far

As an SNP member, it gave me no pleasure to write last week that a lot of questions needed to be answered about the Forth Bridge closure.

I cannot stomach, however, those people in other parties queuing up to blame the SNP government when their parties objected to the “vanity project” that is the new Queensferry Crossing.

Without it, the current chaos would be permanent as the road bridge was always going to fall apart as it now has.

So a little silence from certain parties would be appreciated – for left to them, there would be no new bridge.

Ian’s work was on par with RLS

In all the many tributes to the journalist Ian Bell, one aspect of him was not given prominence.

Ian dearly loved this city, and I have a distinct memory of him arguing with some Glaswegian hack who had the temerity to suggest that the title of capital city should be moved along the M8.

He made short shrift of the journo’s arguments – he usually did – and we all went back to our pints.

Ian’s love of Edinburgh shone through in his brilliant biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, Dreams of Exile, and in many of his journalistic essays.

I just wish Ian had published his novel, Whistling in the Dark, as I believe we would have acclaimed a new RLS.

Hard luck Tory for Davidson

Ruth Davidson’s plan to get herself a safe seat in the Holyrood parliament appears to have worked as she is top of the Conservatives’ list in the Lothians.

She has no chance in Edinburgh Central, but she will be at Holyrood from next May. How humiliating that she will only make it courtesy of proportional representation that her party opposes for the UK.