THE old Royal High School faces lying empty for another seven years as a huge legal wrangle erupts over its future.
Councillors narrowly voted to reject controversial plans to turn the A-listed Calton Hill site into a luxury hotel by eight votes to seven, following a mammoth all-day planning meeting.
But developers vowed they would not “give up at the first hurdle” and will be pushing ahead with fresh attempts to secure the building.
They insisted their contract with the council – drawn up after they won an open competition to develop the site five years ago – lasts until 2022, giving them seven years to lodge any new planning applications.
And they pointed to their own survey showing that their proposals were backed by 93 per cent of the Edinburgh public.
But bosses behind an alternative scheme to transform the site into a new home for St Mary’s Music School insisted yesterday’s decision left the door open for them.
We were given a challenge, and we are not going to give up at the first hurdle.Taco van Heusden
It is understood both sides are now limbering up for a prolonged legal tussle over the celebrated landmark.
Taco van Heusden, managing director of Urbanist Hotels – which is driving the hotel project alongside Duddingston House Properties – said: “The council cannot do anything else with the site until that contract is up – as long as there are efforts [on our part] to move it on.” He declined to confirm whether developers would be lodging an appeal with the Scottish Government.
But he hinted that reducing the size of the 147-bed hotel – which critics and council planners insisted was too big – could be one of the options.
“The other key thing to keep in mind is that it was a split decision – by eight votes to seven,” he said.
“We owe it to the 93 per cent of Edinburgh’s population who back the plans to solve this. It’s been a problem for the city for almost 50 years.
“What direct route we will take, or what strategy, it’s really too early to tell. All I can say is we were given a challenge, and we are not going to give up at the first hurdle.”
The £75 million hotel plans would have seen two huge “Inca-style” stepped extensions built on either side of the 19th century structure.
Luxury hotel chain Rosewood, which also runs the Carlyle Hotel in New York and the Hôtel de Crillion in Paris, was lined up to operate the site.
But earlier this year, fully-funded alternative proposals to turn the building into a new home for St Mary’s Music School were launched by the Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT) in direct opposition to the hotel scheme.
William Gray Muir, chairman of the Trust and one of the main driving forces behind the music school plans, said he was “delighted” the council had acknowledged the vital heritage value of the Royal High School.
He said: “The council’s decision makes it possible for us to pursue our proposals to return the former Royal High School building to its rightful position at the cultural heart of Edinburgh with public performance spaces and a state-of-the-art new home for St Mary’s.
“The Royal High School is an iconic building and a unique location and we are delighted that the council has acknowledged its important place in Edinburgh’s illustrious heritage.”
The council confirmed a contract with the developers was in place until 2022, but said it would consider any planning application. Yesterday’s knife-edge meeting saw hotel developers argue their case in the face of a wave of criticism from heritage bodies – as well as some booing and mocking laughter from the public gallery.
Radha Arora, president of Rosewood Hotels, flew in from Hong Kong in a bid to win councillors round, while Edinburgh Airport’s chief executive Gordon Dewar argued the city was in desperate need of a new top-quality hotel.
Mr Arora insisted his company had entered into a long-term agreement with developers to run the hotel for 30 years – quashing fears the site could quickly be downgraded to a budget offering.
Bruce Hare, boss of Duddingston House Properties, cited the polling carried out on behalf of the developers showing overwhelming public support. But it was not to be, and at around 6pm councillors voted to reject the hotel plans.
Speaking after the meeting, Marion Williams, director of conservation group the Cockburn Association, said Edinburgh’s politicians had done the city proud. She said: “It’s been an exhausting day right up to the last. We now have to wait for them to appeal. But we can enjoy the fact it’s saved and go away and enjoy Christmas.”
Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, added: “We are very pleased that councillors have supported the view of their officers, Historic Environment Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage. This decision demonstrates that the system of protection for the World Heritage Site is functioning. We look forward to the council moving forward with the St Mary’s Music School proposals as swiftly as possible.”