John McLellan: Royal High row rages on

While opponents have damned the Royal High hotel plans, others have quietly voiced support
While opponents have damned the Royal High hotel plans, others have quietly voiced support
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Here’s a story you might have missed this week: A government design team backs Royal High School hotel plan.

Instead, much attention has been paid to Historic Scotland’s brusque dismissal of the controversial proposal to convert the derelict A-listed school on Calton Hill.

In a brief and terse letter to Edinburgh Council, the conservation and heritage guardian says Edinburgh-born architect Gareth Hoskins’s scheme “would clearly dominate and overwhelm the listed building, diminishing significantly the building’s status as an internationally-acclaimed exemplar of Greek Revival architecture”.

The letter from HS heritage management team leader Steven Robb takes just three paragraphs to rubbish a planning application from the developer Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels which runs to 1500 pages, has been years in the making and has been subject to substantial revisions.

Edinburgh council’s planning officers wasted little time in making the HS document public, receiving it by e-mail on September 17 and posting it on their website the same day.

The conservation lobby were quick to pile in, with the Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson apparently saying it was “a matter of deep regret” that the development team had ignored advice.

So what’s all this about a government design team expressing support for the scheme? Some mistake surely?

Step forward Architecture & Design Scotland, the team which, according to its website, helps to implement Scottish Government policies. It took part in discussions with DHP and Hoskins about the Royal High School plan earlier this year and submitted ten pages of comments to the City Council on September 9, posted on the planning website five days later, but which have received comparatively little attention.

Of the consultation process, its report had this to say: “The preparedness of the project team and client to listen and respond to a host of views and to engage in dialogue in a very meaningful way were particularly noted. Substantive change and a significantly improved proposal have resulted.

“We understand that this responsiveness extends to design changes resulting from community representations and public engagement events and this is also recognised and welcomed by A&DS.”

So which bit of that is ignoring advice? If the advice was to stick the plans where daylight is in short supply, then maybe Wilkinson has a point

A&DS does not give its total blessing, in particular calling for the scale of the western extension facing St Andrew’s House to be re-thought, which is not unexpected or unreasonable.

But the positive tone is in marked contrast to the barely concealed contempt of Historic Scotland.

Compare this: “The proposed hotel development would have a significant adverse impact on the setting of the Category A listed former Royal High School. The proposals would impact on the key characteristics and landscape features of the hill, as well as the carefully planned setting and relationship between the hill and the former school, the latter having been thoughtfully designed and positioned to harmonise with the natural contours of the site.”

With this: “This work now demonstrates the opportunity for a hotel development as a means to save an important historic building – the proposals offer some potential benefits to setting through rationalising the current piecemeal development on the site and particularly in encouraging public access to the area by enlivening arrival points to Calton Hill. We encourage the design to be developed further.”

No prizes for guessing which is which. And remember, the harmony with the natural contours was achieved by blowing up the hillside. Very harmonious.

But Historic Scotland goes even further by claiming that harm will be caused by “introducing development in an area kept free for the important setting and views of the hill”.

Effectively, this turns the entire site into a monument and all but rules out any kind of development, potentially even the last-ditch rival music school plan. And that means the taxpayer footing the bill to maintain it indefinitely.

And is it not intriguing that Historic Scotland saw the need to bang out a snippy response when a more detailed and measured response would normally be expected and is indeed promised in due course? Would it by any chance be connected to the protest meeting organised by the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland last night?

Even as it stands, a quick resolution now looks unlikely, quick if you don’t count the 40 years it has taken to find a viable use for the site which, like it or loath it, the DHP plan undoubtedly is.

There may still be time for further adjustments to be made, especially to the western tower, and having come so far it might well be worth it. But even those close to the scheme accept it will take a leap of faith for a majority of councillors on the planning committee to reject Historic Scotland’s recommendation and run the risk of an expensive planning inquiry for which I suspect their officials have little heart.

But throw out the plan and they will face either a re-run of the original competition to find a use for the site or defending a lengthy and costly law suit. All will be revealed when the decision is made on December 18.

Development professionals observing this week’s manoeuvres on balance feel the balance is tipping away from DHP, so what then of luxury hotel operator Rosewood?

Even if it believes the market is here for its services, as it clearly does, is there an alternative site it would find as attractive? Is it the St James Walnut Whip? Somehow I don’t think so.

Park life

I’m told Scottish Rugby and Edinburgh council have kissed and made up after their spat last year, sparked by the development plans for Meadowbank which didn’t include a new home for Edinburgh Rugby.

The council are pressing on with the redevelopment of the old stadium, having found a way to reduce the bill for building a new facility by £1m to £42m, but there is still a funding shortfall of just under £7m and no indication of where this will be found.

Nor is there any sign that Edinburgh Rugby will be making Nether Lochend their new home, with the new sports centre sticking to the original aim of providing just 500 seats around an athletics track. Looks like they’ll be flitting between sub-standard club grounds and a cavernous Murrayfield with less atmosphere than Pluto for a few seasons yet.

Instead the council is talking about the possibility of a partnership with Edinburgh University – maybe that’s where the missing loot can be found – and also Edinburgh City football club.

The new facility at Meadowbank will be great news for east Edinburgh, but £42m is still a lot of money for something which as far as the general public is concerned will essentially be a district amenity.

Lessons learned for fitness

With immaculate timing, a report showing the Commonwealth Games has made not a jot of difference to the number of people participating in sport has nicely tee-ed up a plan to boot Edinburgh’s potatoes off their couches.

A report to Edinburgh Council recommends that Edinburgh Leisure, the arms-length company which runs the city’s sports centres, should take over the running of school sports facilities to improve community use.

According to the council it will result in “greater access and participation by Edinburgh residents, improvements in health and well-being and more income being generated.”

It all sounds a bit motherhood and apple pie – easy on the pastry – given anything which promises to make both our bodies and the council’s bank balance healthier is obviously a good thing. But whether opening up the local school gym is enough to encourage more active life-styles in the short term remains to be seen.

Long term, a combination of better facilities, convenient opening times, low cost, but above all else changing attitudes to booze, fags and physical activity should eventually pay dividends. And that starts in schools.