Controversial plans to transform the old Royal High School into a top hotel have “overwhelming” support from the public, according to the largest polling exercise of its kind ever carried out in Scotland.
The comprehensive survey found that, of the almost 5000 residents quizzed city-wide, more than 90 per cent back the scheme to redevelop the Calton Hill site.
The findings come despite more than 2000 objections being lodged with the city council amid fears the design could jeopardise the Capital’s Unesco World Heritage Site status.
Heritage campaigners have fiercely opposed the plans, as have prominent politicians such as Marco Biagi MSP and Deidre Brock MP, who previously vowed to fight the scheme.
The survey found that seven per cent of those consulted were not supportive of the hotel plans but the overwhelming majority of city residents were keen to see the £75 million proposals go ahead. It also revealed:
• 93 per cent agreed that a hotel is an appropriate use for the site;
• 92 per cent approved of the designs for the development;
• 78 per cent believed the proposals would either have a “positive or no effect” on the city’s World Heritage status.
The survey was carried out by respected consultant Scott Porter Research & Marketing, which has carried out research for the likes of NHS Health Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Coca-Cola.
The poll appears to demonstrate city-wide support for the scheme ahead of next month’s key planning meeting on December 17.
Bruce Hare, boss of Duddingston House Properties (DHP), said: “The results have given us the confidence that we have been going down the right track all along. This is by far the biggest public survey ever done on a major application in Scotland. Even political polls are usually one or two thousand and that covers the whole of Scotland.
“The people of Edinburgh have now spoken and is the general not going to listen to his army?”
A ten-strong team conducted 4833 face-to-face interviews with a minimum of 400 people in each of the 12 selected Edinburgh council wards between October 10 and November 18.
During the survey, participants were presented with statements on the principle of developing the Royal High School as an international hotel, the specific development and design proposal as described and the effect they thought the plan would have on the city’s World Heritage status.
They were asked to rate how much they agreed with the first two statements using a scale of one to ten, with one to four indicating opposition and six to ten indicating support for the plan.
For the third, participants were asked to state whether they thought the plan would have a positive, negative or zero effect, with respondents also able to say that they did not know what level of impact there would be.
They were also shown artists’ illustrations of what the development would look like, including the one shown on this page and others published in the Evening News.
The poll followed a much smaller survey of 400 Edinburgh residents which found more than 80 per cent in favour of the hotel.
The same survey also found that of an additional 100 visitors questioned, 91 per cent were in favour of the scheme.
The wards surveyed were: Meadows/Morningside, Sighthill/Gorgie, Drum Brae/Gyle, Corstorphine/Murrayfield, Southside/Newington, Leith Walk, Leith, Portobello/Craigmillar, Liberton/Gilmerton, Inverleith, City Centre and Pentland Hills.
Pentland Hills recorded the most favourable responses, with 97 per cent approving of developing the former Royal High building as a hotel and 98 per cent in favour of the design itself. The lowest levels of support were recorded in the Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward at 85 per cent.
When asked what effect they thought the proposals for a world class hotel at the former Royal High would have on the World Heritage status, 41 per cent of residents consulted thought the plans to restore the building would have a positive effect, 37 per cent believed it would have no effect, while only seven per cent thought it would have a negative impact.
And of those asked only 15 per cent didn’t know what effect it might have.
Mr Hare said: “This is the fourth survey that has been carried out since public consultation began on this project, and each has shown that an overwhelming majority of Edinburgh’s population wish to see this important building saved and become a key part of the city’s life again as a hotel.
“The funding has been secured, a truly world-class hotel operator in the shape of Rosewood has agreed to bring its expertise to Edinburgh and, subject to planning, everything is in place to be able to restore the building and at the same time create hundreds of quality jobs in the heart of the Capital.
“The spin-off economic benefits for the rest of the country will be significant, too. By creating an attraction of this calibre it will help to put Edinburgh and Scotland right back at the top of must-see destinations for visitors from across the globe.”
It is estimated that the hotel would create 640 jobs and generate £32m a year for the Scottish economy, including £27m annually in Edinburgh.
But one council source described the application as the most controversial planning decision for decades.
In the original designs, the old Royal High was “book-ended” by two blocks but these will now be set back to “give total prominence” to the original classical building.
And Mr Hare stressed that the design had been “changed hugely” to address concerns raised at two public meetings and four workshops.
However, the two six-storey extensions on either side of the landmark – which have been likened to “Inca terraces” – continue to provoke fierce criticism from heritage groups.
Historic Scotland has claimed the two wings would “dominate and overwhelm” the building, while Edinburgh World Heritage said the plans would ruin “an outstanding piece of neoclassical architecture”.
In 2010, DHP won a city council competition to find a sustainable use for the building that did not require public funding. The proposals submitted for approval in December will ensure the building remains in public ownership, with the new hotel operating on a long-term lease with a brief to showcase the very best of Scottish food and drink, goods, design and artistic creativity.
The proposal to turn the former Royal High School into a world-class hotel is led by local partners DHP and Urbanist Hotels. They lead an institutional group of investors and funding has been in place since early 2014.
The Royal High proposals come after rows over a series of major developments in the city, including the Caltongate scheme for hotels, shops and offices given the go-ahead in the Old Town, the demolition and redevelopment of the St James Centre and the dozens of new homes approved at the former Napier University Craighouse campus.
In 2010, DHP’s plan was for a smaller-scale “arts hotel”, but that idea was shelved and last December DHP and Urbanist Group unveiled the current proposals. American operator Rosewood has been lined up to run the new hotel, which the company hopes to open by 2018.
The 1829 Royal High building, designed by architect Thomas Hamilton, was last used as a school in 1968. It was chosen to house the proposed Scottish Assembly, due to be set up after the first devolution referendum in 1979, but never came to pass.