THE old Royal High School should be “mothballed” for its own protection rather than be turned into a luxury hotel, according to a leading heritage watchdog.
The Cockburn Association, formed in 1875 to protect the Capital’s historic landscape, is demanding a complete rethink over plans for a radical overhaul of the landmark on Calton Hill.
It has called on Edinburgh City Council, which owns the A-listed building, to scrap plans to hand it over to private-sector developers and instead find an alternative use which retains it as a key cultural asset.
Controversial plans by Duddingston House Properties, which agreed a 125-year lease with the council in 2010, and Urbanist Group, which worked on the city’s Harvey Nichols department store, involve building two large extensions on either side of the building.
Its central hall, long touted as a debating chamber for the Scottish Parliament, will also be converted into the hotel’s lobby for a £55 million scheme said to have attracted interest from “three of the world’s top hotel operators”.
The building has been lying largely empty since 1968 when the school relocated elsewhere.
Duddingston brought in one of Scotland’s leading architects, Gareth Hoskins, to draw up plans for a hotel at the site. The two developers, who hope to lodge a planning application within months, claim the “overwhelming majority” of people in the city are supportive.
But critics have warned the changes planned for the site are so intrusive and inappropriate they will put Edinburgh’s World Heritage status at risk.
The Cockburn Association said it was essential for the future use of the building to reflect its history as “a temple to learning”. Director Marion Williams also accused the council of allowing one of the city’s most important buildings to fall into disrepair.
She said: “The main benefit of the proposal and its primary justification is in safeguarding the building from further damage. Not only does the council not enforce on others, it also fails to ‘serve notice’ on itself and maintain its buildings such as this one in a reasonable state of good repair.
“We can have little confidence that changes of the sort proposed here do offer any long-term security for the building and we must question if mothballing it intact would not be a safer option.
“Whilst an exclusive hotel could bring economic benefits to Edinburgh, given an understanding of the history of the high school, this is not an appropriate use. This will not be a public building.”
David Orr, chairman of Urbanist Group, said: “Whilst the views expressed so far are overwhelmingly supportive, we recognise less positive views have also been expressed. We’ll faithfully ensure transparency on feedback before the planning application is submitted.”
A council spokeswoman said she was satisfied a “robust” public procurement process was carried out “openly and fairly”.