Graham Birse: Royal High hotel offers benefits

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For as long as I can remember, new development in Edinburgh city centre has been resisted.

On balance, that’s a good thing. It shows that many people care passionately about their city – and the vigilance of heritage organisations has protected an outstanding built environment for current and future generations to enjoy.

But there’s a problem. And that is the polarisation of the debate about new development in Edinburgh, particularly in the World Heritage Site. Every time a new project is proposed, objections are raised and the implicit threat of Edinburgh being “stripped of its World Heritage status” appears in this newspaper and elsewhere.

Yet I can think of no occasion in the recent past where Unesco’s World Heritage watchdog has explicitly said that there is a threat. The visit of one of its advisory bodies, Icomos, last week took place without any request to meet the developers of the two flagship projects: the Royal High School and the St James. If there really is a threat then why is the trial proceeding without a case for the defence being presented?

The risk in all of this is the message Edinburgh is sending to the world that modern architecture and ambitious projects in the city centre are incompatible with our World Heritage status. No less an authority than Francesco Bandarin, Unesco’s assistant director general for culture, is on record as saying this is not the case. But that’s not how it feels in Edinburgh.

Personally, I think the Royal High School project is fantastic and the only realistic solution on the table that will reverse the scandalous decay of a fabulous building. Its architect, Gareth Hoskins, is respected in the profession for his work in this field, and the way he has blended the new hotel wings into the contours of Calton Hill is a touch of genius.

But it’s not for that reason alone that councillors on the planning committee should approve this application. We need to think carefully about the economic impact and jobs that the development brings, too.

In the heat of the debate about function and form, we seem to have overlooked the fact that the hotel brand at RHS, Rosewood, operates only 18 luxury hotels worldwide, all of them destination resorts in themselves. This means the economic impact of their properties is much more significant than a typical hotel, and propels Edinburgh into the premier league of global city destinations. If I was a young person in one of Edinburgh’s housing schemes looking for a job, I know which way I’d want the vote to go.

Graham Birse is director of the Edinburgh Institute at Napier University and a board member of Marketing Edinburgh.