John McLellan: Secrecy threatens World Heritage Status credibility

The old Royal High School. Picture: Scott Taylor
The old Royal High School. Picture: Scott Taylor
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It was with breath-taking arrogance that Unesco’s masonically-appointed world heritage guardian James Simpson declared there was no need to identify the inspectors coming to see if Edinburgh was looking after itself properly.

An Edinburgh-based conservation architect, Simpson is a vice-president of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos) UK which advises Unesco on what should or shouldn’t have World Heritage status.

So this week he and three Icomos mystery conservation shoppers went on a fact-finding tour of the city because of fears the St James Centre development and the Royal High School hotel will have such a devastating effect that Unesco will strip the Old and New Towns of their much-coveted internationally-recognised accolade.

No information about the visit was made public and Simpson explained to the Evening News that “Icomos works in a very behind-the-scenes way, and not in a public way.”

Well that’s all right then. Forget the fact World Heritage status has been regarded as a crucial element of Edinburgh’s international appeal. And never mind that threats of its removal are taken very seriously when it comes to decisions about city centre developments.

Simpson, it would seem, expects us to accept that something so apparently important should be in the gift of people whose identities we should not know and whose decision-making should not be open to scrutiny.

It is an attitude shared by the Icomos office in London which failed to respond to my request for information about the inspectors or their schedule.

And to make matters worse, those who met them were sworn to secrecy too. Except, of course, we already know quite a lot about Mr Simpson. He is the semi-retired founding partner of Simpson & Brown, a firm which has been engaged by the Raoyal High School Preservation Trust to help turn it into a new home for the St Mary’s Music School should the hotel plan fail.

He denies any conflict of interest because, he says, there are what he calls “Chinese walls” between him and the business. Believe that if you want, but perceptions of conflict are every bit as important as conflict itself and the decision to be involved in an official capacity in this process should not have been his to take.

But we are not allowed to know how or why Icomos/Unesco permits such an investigation to be dictated by someone who is so obviously compromised.

Having made his views so widely known, Simpson still had the chutzpah this week to say it was “an exploratory visit to see for ourselves what we think of the situation with regards to these two applications and whether or not they are a danger to the World Heritage status.”

The second inspector was a chap called Barry Joyce, who spent 34 years as a conservation and design manager for Derbyshire County Council before he retired three years ago and is also a vice-president of Icomos UK.

Derbyshire is a lovely place, and although I don’t know Mr Joyce I’m sure he’s a jolly nice chap. But nor do I know what qualifies him to drop by in Edinburgh and pass judgement on our affairs and it seems Icomos is in no mood to explain either.

The third and fourth men? It could have been Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini for all we were told.

In fact, Icomos and the World Heritage Trust, into which Simpson has a direct line, have already lodged their objection to the Royal High hotel plan, the latter in the strongest terms. So we have the strange situation of a conclusion being reached before the investigation.

With 2000 objections to the Royal High proposal apparently lodged with the council, Unesco is entitled to check if the city should still be worthy of its gong if the projects go ahead as planned.

But the process is so mired in suspicion and deliberate obscurity that it threatens the very credibility of the honour, without which it is virtually meaningless.

Unesco can’t have it both ways – World Heritage status is either worth keeping because its methods are beyond reproach, or it is worthless because its decisions are tainted and so shrouded in secrecy.

Already I’m hearing that more than a few who have big decisions to make in the next few months are leaning towards the latter and what will wreck the WHS system is if cities like Edinburgh join Dresden in dismissing it.

Love or loathe the plans, believe the deranged social media conspiracy theories about councillors’ motives (or mine for that matter) if you like, but it is unacceptable for unaccountable agencies to hold a gun to the city’s head as it wrestles with decisions in which passions were always going to run high and objectivity is a rarity.