Old Royal High School public inquiry gets under way

Pupils at St Mary's, Scotland's only independent specialist music school, launched the campaign for a new home at the old Royal High School.
Pupils at St Mary's, Scotland's only independent specialist music school, launched the campaign for a new home at the old Royal High School.
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An architect and historian has hit out at music school plans as the public inquiry into the future of the old Royal High School got under way.

Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels are appealing the City of Edinburgh Council’s refusal of two schemes for the listed building on Calton Hill in December 2015 and August 2017. Developers want to turn the former school into a high-end Rosewood hotel.

Alternative plans by St Mary’s Music School were approved by the council, but Duddingston currently retain the rights to the site.

The inquiry is being held at Tynecastle Park Stadium and will run until December.

Chartered architect and architectural historian Andrew Wright was first of around 30 witnesses to give evidence to the Scottish Government inquiry, chaired by assistant chief reporter Scott Ferrie and senior reporter Dannie Onn.

Mr Wright was brought onto the developers’ team in 2014 and helped prepare heritage statements for the planning applications.

He spoke out in support of the appeal of both schemes being granted with his “professional judgement based on a lifetime of experience”.

He said: “For both schemes, the valuations veer towards enhancing the World Heritage Site rather than detracting from it. I would state emphatically that my view remains that the development itself would not affect the status of the World Heritage site. The development would enhance the conservation area rather than cause harm to it.”

Mr Wright then turned his attention to the plans for St Mary’s Music School, of which he claimed an element would pose “unnecessary risk” to masonry. He added: “It would cause irreversible harm to one of the areas of the building where original fabric survives by proposing a new foyer below the assembly hall.”

Malcolm Thomson, representing the city council, pressed Mr Wright over whether compromises to conservation were made in order to satisfy the requirements of the developers. Mr Thomson said: “Was it your understanding that 150 bedrooms was the minimum requirement for financial viability for the proposed six-star hotel?”

Mr Wright replied: “It was shaping up to be that way, but it may not have been a precise number because it was constantly moving and part of that is looking at heritage assets.”

Mr Thomson added: “You seem to be introducing economic viability of the scheme as a mitigating factor in what’s going to be acceptable.”

Mr Wright said: “I don’t think it can be a mitigating factor as such. It is a matter to be taken into account as part of the balancing of the planning considerations, which the policy guidance allows.”

Mark McMurray, from Historic Environment Scotland, also quizzed Mr Wright.

He said: “This is a site which presents exceptional design challenges – partly through the sensitivity of the heritage assets and simply by the nature of the site itself.

“It’s frankly impossible to build hotel extensions which are of sufficient scale to allow for your client’s economic considerations, without there being a closing up of built development as viewed from the North Bridge.”

The inquiry continues.

newsen@edinburghnews.com