Four leading heritage groups have joined forces to warn that allowing one of Edinburgh’s prominent landmarks to be turned into a luxury hotel for “elite” travellers would damage forever the historic heart of the city.
Council leaders have been warned they will “destroy Edinburgh’s credibility for stewardship of its World Heritage Site” if it backs a bid to turn the former Royal High School on Calton Hill into a new hotel for the Hong Kong-based Rosewood chain.
The chairs of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, the Cockburn Association, the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust and the Scottish Civic Trust have written an open letter to the city’s Lord Provost, calling for the council to respect the “overwhelming” weight of public opinion on the issue.
It emerged earlier this month that one of Scotland’s leading arts philanthropists had warned that turning the old Royal High School into a hotel was a “red line” that should not be crossed for commercial reasons.
Carol Grigor, who has pledged to bankroll a rival bid create a new concert hall and music school in the building, says the decision would “speak volumes” on how much value Edinburgh placed on culture, heritage and education.
Much of the controversy over the new hotel has surrounding the need to build multi-storey extensions on either side of the A-listed landmark.
Dating back to 1829, the building has been lying largely empty since it was vacated by the school in 1968.
The idea of turning it into a hotel won a council-run design contest in 2010, but plans for the development were not made public for another five years.
Councillors have already turned down one attempt to win approval for the Rosewood hotel.
The two developers behind the project, Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels, have reduced the height of the extensions by 25 per cent, and cut the number of rooms from 147 down to 127.
However the council’s own planning experts have recommended rejection for the latest bid on the grounds that “the resulting harm caused by the proposed extensions significantly outweighs the economic benefit and benefit of bringing the building back into long-term use.”
The new open letter from the four heritage bodies states: “To our knowledge, this is the first occasion on which all four bodies have combined to write collectively - such is the importance of the matter.
“The council’s planning officers and the experts at Historic Environment Scotland have scrutinised the application and both recommend that it be rejected.
“There is an overwhelming case to respect their judgement on this highly sensitive site.
“As your own planning officers state unequivocally, ‘the application does not comply with the Historic Environment Scotland Policy 2016, the development plan or Edinburgh planning guidance.” To disregard these policies would destroy Edinburgh’s credibility for stewardship of its World Heritage Site.
“The Royal High School is recognised as being one of the most important buildings in Edinburgh for the contribution it makes to the northern skyline.
“It is one of the most important examples in Europe of the Greek Revival style of architecture, and has survived far more completely than many of its rivals on the Continent.
“The contribution it makes to Edinburgh’s Acropolis on Calton Hill is profound. Its scenic and cultural significance as a visual stop at the New Town’s east end balances the Castle’s role at the west end of the Old Town. This balance would be severely damaged by the proposed hotel.”
David Orr, Chairman of Urbanist Hotels, said: "Hamilton’s masterpiece has been publicly owned since 1829, but never publicly accessible. Our design will restore and regenerate this national treasure with a new use as a world-class hotel for the people of Edinburgh and beyond. Heritage and conservation are central to our plans.
“This is the only proposal that can realistically guarantee the future of the Hamilton building – both architecturally and financially.
"Without it, we risk another 50 years of disrepair and misuse, which would be catastrophic for both the building and the city.
"I am confident that those who genuinely care about Edinburgh’s future, and can look through the emotional rhetoric and see the hard facts, won’t let this happen."