Edinburgh's World Heritage status at risk? Regeneration of city centre has been a triumph – Donald Anderson

The news that Liverpool is to lose its World Heritage status has led to questions about whether Edinburgh might be at risk of the same verdict.

Tuesday, 27th July 2021, 4:55 am
The publication of so many spectacular photographs of the St James Quarter's W hotel shows that, for many, it is a welcome addition to the city skyline (Picture: Ian Georgeson)

It’s an understandable concern and nobody who lives in, or visits, Edinburgh can fail to be impressed by its awesome beauty. Nobody in the city would want to put that at risk.

In fact, I’d strongly argue that Edinburgh’s city centre regeneration in recent decades has been one of the most successful anywhere and that our built heritage is in the best shape its ever been.

A hundred years ago, the city’s Company of Merchants published a report, The Development of Edinburgh, which raised alarm about the “centrifugal” forces that led to residents moving out of the city centre.

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The tune didn’t change much during the 20th century as the city grappled with the issues of a declining city centre population and urban decay, but from the 1980s and 1990s investment started to flow into the city centre and that continues today.

So, do we have a risk that Edinburgh will lose it’s heritage status? Well, there will always be arguments about new developments and deciding on what is built in Edinburgh will always attract controversy.

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The ‘W’ Hotel at the St James Quarter has attracted a mix of criticism and praise. Let me declare an interest, I worked on the project for many years. Everyone will have their view and is entitled to it, but the appearance of so many spectacular photographs of the hotel in the media and social media shows that, for many, the new hotel is a welcome addition to the city skyline.

There have been many more controversies of course, but many developments have enhanced the city. I remain impressed by the quality of the restaurant extension to Edinburgh Castle. It was a brave and bold move, especially given the castle’s recent status as the most awe-inspiring city site in Scotland.

The Princes Street Galleries proposals were dropped 20 years ago (after the project achieved planning permission in principle) because of heritage concerns.

The Caltongate proposals were initially controversial but passed with a relative lack of acrimony as New Waverley. It’s a huge improvement in an area that was rundown and semi-derelict. It’s now thriving and soon to be home to thousands of new jobs. What controversy there was seems to have died away. It’s a smart and attractive addition to the city centre.

Also, there are unlikely to be many major sites coming forward anytime soon. Princes Street will undergo a major transformation in the coming years, but not the brutalist proposals suggested in the 1950s. In a city that was once famous for its gap sites, there are almost none left.

So, do we just sit back and say mission accomplished? Well no. Heritage arguments will always need to be put and carefully considered.

I can think of no modern development that is reviled in the way that the old kinetic sculpture was at Picardy Place. Edinburgh’s city centre has been transformed and despite many challenges has thrived. The regeneration of the heart of the city is arguably one of the finest in Europe. The heart of the city beats stronger and may that success long continue.

Donald Anderson is director of Playfair Scotland

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