Unesco to investigate impact of new developments on Edinburgh

An artist's impression of a hotel which is part of the St James Quarter development. Illustration: contributed
An artist's impression of a hotel which is part of the St James Quarter development. Illustration: contributed
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UNESCO has kick-started moves to investigate Edinburgh’s world heritage site which could see the Scottish capital lose its coveted status after more than two decades.

The world heritage body has demanded a full dossier on the impact of new developments amid claims that classic views of the city are being eroded.

Unesco has acted after an official report called for a “serious investigation” into the way the city’s Old and New Towns are being managed.

The UK and Scottish governments have been asked about the handling of the world heritage site following a warning from advisers that the “potentially negative impacts of cumulative new developments is becoming increasingly apparent”.

The city council has also been asked to explain its stewardship of the site, following calls for a far-reaching overhaul of the handling of high-profile projects to tackle “considerable” public concern.

The Unesco probe is understood to have been prompted by rows over the hotel at the heart of the £850 million development which will replace the St James Centre and a bid to turn the former Royal High School into a £75m hotel targeted at the world’s “elite” travellers.

Work is due to get under way on the St James project, which has been at least a decade in the planning stages, within the next few months after being backed by councillors against the advice of their own officials. The spiralling design of the hotel at the heart of the project has been widely ­criticised.

The developers of the scheme for the former Royal High School, which had been opposed by the council’s planning experts, heritage bodies and government agency Historic Scotland, are deciding whether to appeal its rejection by councillors in December.

Ian Perry, the council’s planning leader, said: “The present and past planning committees have had a duty to maintain the world heritage site. However there is always a tension between the desire to develop within the site and the preservation of its architectural heritage. Clearly there are differing views about how this should be interpreted.

“It is the planning committee’s job to try to allow development to happen without damaging the built heritage of Edinburgh, which in the past has proven difficult and some of the developments have obviously been controversial.

“The present planning committee will now be looking at the management of the world heritage site and will review what has happened in the past.

“If we think there need to be changes we will then consult the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust.”

A spokeswomen for the Scottish Government said Unesco was kept “routinely informed”, via DCMS, about proposed developments which affect the country’s world heritage sites.

She added: “We are considering Unesco’s concerns and will be providing our advice to DCMS shortly.”

A spokeswoman for DCMS “We work closely with the Scottish Government and Unesco on the stewardship of all world heritage sites in ­Scotland.”

A report published last year by the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites said action was needed to ensure the integrity of the “truly remarkable urban landscape” in Edinburgh was always protected and enhanced by new ­developments.