McLellan’s Edinburgh: value in Old School idea

The old Royal High has not had a continuous use since the school moved premises 46 years ago. Pic: Jon Savage
The old Royal High has not had a continuous use since the school moved premises 46 years ago. Pic: Jon Savage
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The transformation of the old Royal High School into an exclusive hotel for the wealthy might cause groans in some quarters, but if it comes off it will help fill a gap which has been growing for over 20 years and find a use for a building which has lain virtually empty for twice as long.

Refurbishments of the Balmoral, Caledonian and Sheraton have allowed the city to continue to compete in most of the premium travel markets, but Edinburgh risks being left behind at a top end, which is increasingly dominated by what some would describe as vulgar seven-star institutions in places like Dubai.

If the old Royal High can compete on quality without the vulgarity it could be onto something.

Creating a home-for-home for wealthy Arabs and Russian oligarchs (no valueless roubles, they were using dollars before the final end of Communism) might not be top of local priorities, but if these people have money to burn they might as well burn it here.

Three operators are said to be in talks with the site owner Duddingston House Properties, in which Sir Tom Farmer has been a prominent investor, but the challenge is not just creating somewhere they might want to stay but to give them real reasons to come here and come back again. The International Festival and golf are already globally-renowned attractions so the first trick will be to sell these unique experiences to the many wealthy individuals who will never have considered Edinburgh as a destination.

Thanks to the Ryder Cup, Visit Scotland will already have a fair idea who many of these people are and new opportunities need to be explored as well as consolidating golf. Formula One racing and the Americas Cup might not be staged here, but the people who support them should be on the target list.

Come to think of it, if you can have a grand prix around Monaco, why not here?

Start on Princes Street, then along Regent Road, down through Abbeyhill, hairpin back onto London Road, up Leith Walk, right onto Queen Street, left to Charlotte Square and back onto Princes Street. Mind you, the temporary grandstands on Princes Street Gardens might not go down too well and, oops, who put those tram pylons there? OK, forget a grand prix, but we can get the Tour de France Grand Depart, surely.

Attracting more of the world’s wealthy should also give an impetus to the creative industries and if international markets for world class opera, ballet and visual arts are exploited it will help balance the regular 
arguments about where government support for the arts should be directed. Scottish Opera is still recovering from the debacle of ten years ago when its hard-won international reputation was all but destroyed in a row over budgets.

The tight city-centre locations of hotels like the Balmoral and Caley present considerable difficulties for the lucrative Chinese package market, where travellers with deep pockets expect to be picked up from the airport in luxury coaches which then ferry them around everywhere door to door.

Neither end of Princes Street can cope with the lines of coaches which would be the result of maximising the Far East tourism opportunity but not so Regent Road, which was used as a stand-in bus station when St Andrew Square was being redeveloped.

And the new hotel is good news for Edinburgh architect Gareth Hoskins, who won acclaim for his extension to the National Museum of Scotland and has recently completed the designs for a new dining hall at his old school, George Watson’s College.

Transforming the old Royal High while maintaining the historic setting will be a delicate operation but the survival of the little-used debating chamber is by no means certain. A hotel will have no use for a monument to a failed political project although the Star Trek-style Presiding Officer’s throne might have a place in the new foyer.

One idea from the past which might still find some fulfilment is the dream of newspaper designer Graeme Murdoch and the late Michael Shea to turn the school into the Scottish National Photography Centre because of the link with Victorian pioneers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson whose Rock House studio was nearby on Calton Hill.

The National Galleries of Scotland has 30,000 historic photographs in its collections, so what better way to attract Hollywood A-listers than to theme up with genuine artefacts from the birth of their craft?

PLANNERS NEED TO UNDERSTAND SHOPPING TRENDS

If it’s not happened already, shop owners will be looking for a huge shot in the arm this weekend after disappointing retail sales figures were recorded in November.

According to the latest Scottish Retail Consortium survey, the value of sales fell 1.4 per cent compared with November last year, as opposed to a 2.2 per cent rise across the UK. However, SRC director David Lonsdale reckons volume actually rose by 0.4 which as well as falling food prices could be explained by the kind of heavy discounting seen in the new Black Friday shopping phenomenon.

There is further confusion because the footfall figures for November were positive, leading experts like Stirling University’s Professor Leigh Sparks to question the validity of footfall figures as a reliable indicator of retail activity because of the volume of transactions now conducted online.

He has a point and the changing way people shop and spend leisure time is something planners will need to understand as they face decisions affecting the shape of town centres and high streets.

If more people are coming into main areas but buying their goods online, what are they doing? Apart from browsing, the answer must be enjoying themselves, which makes cafes, restaurants, bars and entertainment as important as quality stores and a comfortable environment for the future wellbeing of town centres.

No-one said it was easy...

If housing developers want their plans to sail through Edinburgh City Council, then they should look no further than the successful application by Cruden to build on the controversial Baileyfield site in Portobello.

The subject of repeated unsuccessful plans going back nearly ten years (including one from Duddingston House Properties) permission was finally granted on Wednesday for a joint development by Cruden and discount foodstore Aldi, but only after a marathon three-hour meeting.

As with the new high school, Portobello people were divided and the community council consultation put it at 50-40 in favour of the scheme with ten per cent undecided. At the heart of the opposition were local traders on the High Street who feared an Aldi store would drain away their custom, while Aldi argued they would act as a magnet and their limited range would encourage people to use nearby shops.

What swayed councillors was the housing mix, with plans for 78 flats of varying sizes and 99 two-bedroom “colonies” style houses grouped around a common park square, with a quarter being affordable through a partnership with the Port of Leith Housing Association. There will also be 42 retirement flats and the councillors on the development management committee loved it.

No prizes for guessing they were less in love with Aldi’s plans, and the go-ahead does not apply to the proposal for a 98-space car park which has been sent back for review.

In an extremely complicated but well-managed set of votes, two councillors, Green Nigel Bagshaw, below, and the SNP’s Denis Dixon, wanted the whole thing thrown out because of the feared impact of the shop on both local trade and traffic. Some others, led by Tory Joanna Mowat, wanted to allow the houses but force Aldi to redesign what is admittedly a pretty uninspiring exterior.

In the end it was only a matter of whether or not the Aldi element was rejected and approval was granted by nine votes to five. For what is effectively wasteground dominated by a Kwik-Fit it shows just how difficult getting through improvements to an Edinburgh district can be, but no-one can accuse this committee of not thrashing out all the issues.