Landmark deal agreed to protect Edinburgh’s historic cityscape

Edinburgh's historic skyline is to be protected. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Edinburgh's historic skyline is to be protected. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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A landmark deal has been agreed to protect Edinburgh’s historic skyline, curb the “commercialisation” of public spaces in the city centre and reduce overcrowding problems during peak tourism periods.

The domination of “tartan tat” shops on key thoroughfares like the Royal Mile and a surge in Old Town properties being let out to holidaymakers are also expected to be tackled under a new blueprint to safeguard Edinburgh’s “world heritage site” status.

The Scottish Government’s heritage agency, the city council and the Edinburgh World Heritage trust – the main watchdog for the Old and New towns – have agreed to act on a host of long-running concerns about the stewardship of the historic heart of the Capital.

It is hoped that the five-year management plan for the city centre, which is expected to influence a host of council policies in the run-up to 2022, will avoid the possibility of Edinburgh being put on a “danger list” of sites around the world.

Council leader Adam McVey said the blueprint tackled “many of the key concerns” raised by taxpayers in recent years and was aimed at ensuring that Edinburgh’s historic landscape was “enhanced and not put at risk” in the next five years.

Campaigners have warned that the city’s world heritage status has been put at risk in recent years by the handling of controversial developments like the new St James Quarter, the New Waverley scheme next to the council’s own headquarters, and plans to create a luxury hotel in the old Royal High School on Calton Hill.

The new guidelines – which all future investors in the city will be asked to abide by – warn that Edinburgh’s skyline is “vulnerable to unsympathetic development” and state that it is “essential” that the city’s uniquely visible landscape is protected in future.

The blueprint acknowledges concerns that new developments are “not seen to be in keeping” with the architecture of the Old and New Towns as well as demands for a better quality of architecture to be pursued in future.

The council will now insist that new “place briefs” are drawn up in advance for vacant sites and must be “rigidly” adhered to by developers before planning applications are brought forward.

The document states: “Balancing the needs of the city to maintain its economic vibrancy and the need to protect the heritage is essential for both. The challenge is to ensure that development takes appropriate account of the site’s unique qualities.”

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “This plan is very much the starting point. It should give us all a locus to act and also urge changes in policy where it is needed.

“Having ‘place briefs’ in future will help change the dynamic in Edinburgh. In the UK, we have a very reactive planning system. By and large, developers get to build what they think is right for a site. Elsewhere in Europe, a city says: ‘This is what we want built on this site’. Councils can dictate things, and decide what is needed on a particular site.

“It allows for a much more pro-active approach. It can be made very clear to developers from the outset what can and can’t be done. We can avoid some of the energy-sapping fights from the last few years. You would also give developers a degree of certainty early on.”

New guidelines are expected to be drawn up to try to strike a greater balance of uses of buildings in the Old and New Towns, while a “sustainable tourism” strategy for the city is to be pursued to help spread visitors out from the most congested areas on the Royal Mile and Princes Street.

The blueprint commits the city to tackling concerns that Princes Street Gardens and St Andrew Square have been “over-commercialised” by events in recent years.

It has been published days after councillors stalled proposals to hand control of West Princes Street Gardens to a new “arms-length” operator when a new concert arena starts operating.

It emerged last month that the council was set to clamp down on the staging of events in public spaces in the city centre in the wake of over-crowding, over-commercialisation and noise complaints.

The blueprint, which contains 49 separate “action points,” is also expected to help bring empty council-owned properties and gap sites back into temporary use, influence the council’s policy on letting out retail units in the city centre, reduce the amount of “street clutter”, and clamp down on shops “spilling out on the street”.

Mr McVey added: “The new plan commits us to continue to improve our conservation and promotion of the city’s internationally renowned Old and New Towns World Heritage Site. I’m fully supportive of the actions, which are wide-ranging and tackle many of the key concerns expressed by residents of the city and others.

“These will also be integrated into the broader management of the city to ensure they’re taken forward.”

Barbara Cummins, director of Historic Environment Scotland, said: “The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh are one of Scotland’s six extraordinary and diverse World Heritage Sites.

“The opportunities and challenges facing Edinburgh as our vibrant capital city are complex and many, but this plan goes a long way to respond to these.

“We look forward to Edinburgh becoming an example of how best to manage our heritage in the context of a thriving urban environment.”