I don’t want to say ‘I told you so’ about the plans for the old Royal High School, but I told you so . . . John McLellan
And as Cassandra was belting out her anguish in the astonishing Korean production of Trojan Women at the Festival Theatre last week, the backers of the bid to turn the crumbling Calton Hill complex into a new home for the St Mary’s Music School were about to announce the game was up.
Even before the pandemic put building costs through the roof, it was clear it was an extremely tall order for the Dunard arts philanthropy fund to bankroll the school plan as well as the concert hall behind St Andrew Square which will bear its name, and for which costs were always significantly underestimated.
I am not alone casting doubt about the music school plan’s viability, with fellow Evening News columnist Kevin Buckle also questioning its future earlier this year.
Now the school flit has been scrapped, what’s left is a grandiose scheme to convert very old buildings into some sort of arts venue with no obvious significant revenue stream to pay for its upkeep.
The Royal High School Preservation Trust, which was granted a long lease by the City Council to develop it as a school and arts facility, now promises to produce new plans with “greater public access and even more significant public benefit”, but it’s not clear if even that’s deliverable, given the conversion costs will be huge, with or without a music school.
With the primary purpose of blocking a six-star hotel plan for the buildings the powerful conservation lobby loathed, it’s what has been described as a Trojan School, supposedly a gift to the city which promised much but is turning out to be anything but.
Councillors on the planning committee were persuaded to grant permission by the promise of a conservatoire on the hill, despite the plan having a far greater direct impact on the Grade A listed buildings than the hotel plans they threw out on similar grounds.
It cannot be forgotten that the buildings are still owned by the council and it was the council which approved the hotel principle, and now there is a risk that if the revised plan doesn’t stack up it ─ or rather, we the council tax-payers ─ could be saddled with an indefinite maintenance bill for a building for which it has no use.
So, here’s another prediction. The Royal High Preservation people will scrape together enough money to do something with part of the site, but not all. They might be able to launch something, but it will quickly go bust and the lease will be returned to the council.
But the council’s estate is already too large ─ it’s Waverley Court HQ is deserted because senior officers have grown to enjoy working from home ─ and as it has a nearby arts venue, the City Art Centre, it has no need for another.
Therefore, the council will seek bids for a new development, but no-one will touch it because they will know what happened to the hotel plan and the council will ask the Scottish Government to step in.
In short, we will be where we have been for 50 years.