Activists ‘use scare tactics’ over Royal High plans

An artist's impression of the bold plans for the old Royal High site. Picture: Contributed
An artist's impression of the bold plans for the old Royal High site. Picture: Contributed
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HERITAGE campaigners have been accused of trying to “frighten” councillors out of making bold planning decisions ahead of crunch talks over the future of the old Royal High School.

Councillor Cameron Rose, who is a key figure on the city’s planning committee, made the comments after it was revealed a team of experts from a leading conservation group are set to descend on the Capital to examine Edinburgh’s World Heritage status.

Recent developments such as the new Edinburgh St James and plans to transform the Royal High into a luxury hotel have been heavily criticised.

And now fears have been raised that Edinburgh risks losing its World Heritage listing after it emerged specialists from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), who advise Unesco, will investigate the impact of these planning decisions later this month.

Icomos’ experts have the power to refer any criticisms to the body’s international committee, which could then prompt Unesco to launch its own investigation – and eventually strip Edinburgh of its coveted status.

Conservation campaigners said the watchdog was simply responding to “rumblings” of dissatisfaction over recent planning decisions. But city councillors argued there was no immediate threat to the Capital’s international standing.

Mr Rose, who is among those who supported recent developments such as Edinburgh St James, insisted the move was “clearly part of a campaign by the heritage lobby to frighten people who are taking decisions in the city”.

He said: “The World Heritage designation is nice to have, but it’s not the be all and end all. It will be bad publicity if we lose it, but Edinburgh has to be a living city and not a city that just lives on the basis of yesterday’s heritage.

“We have seen a lot of publicity before around a risk to the World Heritage status, and in the event it did not happen. People who are taking decisions on the planning committee have to look at the whole picture and not just the heritage lobby.”

It is understood Icomos’ concerns revolve around the breaching of the World Heritage Site management plan, which was agreed between the council and Unesco when Edinburgh was first awarded its prestigious status in 1995.

The watchdog’s team of experts will examine everything from the general state of conservation right through to the planning process when they arrive in the city later this month.

James Simpson, Icomos UK’s vice-president for Scotland, previously said there was “huge concern” over recent development moves in Edinburgh.

He labelled the decision to plough ahead with the controversial ribbon hotel at the centre of the £850 million St James development “extraordinary” – arguing that it had breached planning policies and the World Heritage Site management plan.

The striking hotel, which was ushered through last month, is seen as key to the wider success of the St James plans as developers look to attract a five-star hotel operator and high-end retailers to neighbouring shop units.

But the bold design attracted ridicule from some quarters – with comparisons to a Mr Whippy ice cream among the more polite barbs.

Mr Simpson, who is a founding partner at Edinburgh-based Simpson & Brown Architects, also insisted “inappropriate” changes to the surroundings of the Royal High School would be “very serious indeed”.

The medieval Old Town and Georgian New Town were awarded Unesco World Heritage status in December 1995, with the organisation noting the “harmonious juxtaposition” of the two historic areas.

But Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage – the charity charged with championing the honour – said recent developments could have a “potentially accumulative effect” on the city’s listing. He said: “[Icomos] have obviously heard the rumblings around the place and want to come and have a closer look.

“Edinburgh is one of the world’s leading heritage sites so it’s naturally going to be in the spotlight. We are always going to receive a pretty high degree of scrutiny.”

He added: “Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site is the city’s greatest asset, a source of immense pride for its citizens and key to its future success – and it is only natural that other organisations are interested in how we work to look after it for the benefit of its people.”

Only two sites have ever lost their Unesco heritage listing – Germany’s Dresden Elbe Valley and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary in Oman. The Elbe Valley was delisted in 2009 following the construction of a huge four-lane road bridge.

Councillor Ian Perry, the city’s planning leader, said: “If we are asked to meet with representatives of Icomos UK we will, of course, ensure that we take time to brief them on recent planning decisions taken in Edinburgh. Our Unesco status is something the council is immensely proud of and takes very seriously.

“It is inevitable that new developments will be attracted to the centre, and this is important for the city to evolve. We are committed to managing this process carefully and ensuring that the greatest consideration is given to its historic environment, while ensuring the city’s future economic success.”

A Historic Scotland spokesman said it would continue to work closely with the council and the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust in order to “best protect the outstanding universal value of the site”.