The new World Heritage Site management plan agreed between the city council and the World Heritage Trust could face a stiff test much earlier than expected and it could put the artistic community at odds with each other.
To make matters worse, the issue is central to the Edinburgh region City Deal, potentially worth £1 billion to the area. Of the five key commitments identified at its unveiling last July, number three was the £20-million pledge for a new concert hall in the heart of the New Town, a 1,000-seater bespoke home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (SCO).
The project has been developed by IMPACT Scotland (the International Music and Performing Arts Charitable Trust), which has on its board such luminaries as radio presenter James Naughtie and ex-Napier University principal Dame Joan Stringer, but the lynchpins are three arts patrons who know their way around the city’s best boardrooms, Sir Euan Brown, Donald MacDonald and Carol Grigor.
Mr MacDonald has been the driving force behind the SCO for years and is its life president, while ex-concert pianist Ms Grigor inherited millions from her industrialist father and is a major benefactor of the International Festival.
She is also bankrolling the St Mary’s Music School move to the old Royal High School, which has planning permission and is ready to go should the controversial hotel plan fail to win its appeal against rejection. Here is where it gets interesting for Ms Grigor and the IMPACT board. Having now studied the concert hall details unveiled earlier this year, the reaction of World Heritage veterans of the Caltongate, St James and Royal High battles is apparently one of horror.
The new venue will replace an ugly 60s office block behind Dundas House – the famous neo-classical mansion house facing St Andrew’s Square which was RBS’s official HQ before the flit to Gogarburn – which will become the main entrance and lead through the magnificent banking hall into the complex.
READ MORE: First look at Edinburgh’s new concert hall
The design is by London-based David Chipperfield Architects, responsible for the new BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow, working with Edinburgh-based Reiach and Hall which produced the Haymarket masterplan. They have created what looks like a giant snuff box rising up behind St Andrew’s Square, a stone-clad, flat-roofed, oval monolith with vertical features mirroring the columns and tall window shapes of the Georgian architecture around it.
The auditorium will tower over Dundas House, but will not affect the skyline from George Street because it will be overshadowed by the new St James Centre. Having staged consultation events, a detailed planning application is due to be submitted this summer and a decision could be taken around February 2019.
But the word is that the people involved in preparing the World Heritage management plan believe the IMPACT scheme is everything they hoped the plan would prevent. And worse, they fear that granting permission would open the door for the Scottish Government to approve the Royal High hotel plan because they believe the proportion and appearance of the new concert’s relationship to Dundas House is similar to that of the new hotel wings to the Thomas Hamilton school.
The issue exposes the essential weakness of the World Heritage management plan in that it’s too vague to do what its authors and backers intend. Leading architects and a board totally attuned to the sensitivities of the historic city centre, and very much alive to the controversies of the recent past, have still managed to produce something the heritage people abhor.
Theatres are by their nature big so creating something modern which satisfies everyone is virtually impossible. I don’t think the Concert Hall is a carbuncle, or that is creates a dangerous precedent, but if true it would mean Carol Grigor backing a project which could stymie her music school dream. You pays your money and you get Hobson’s Choice.
Our green and litter-strewn land
A patrol this week down London Road with the council’s head of waste services, Gareth Barwell, revealed what locals have known for years; the area is lined with green spaces which rather than pleasant features have become unkempt litter traps.
We even found a roll of ticket paper decorating a fence which had presumably come from a bus driver who didn’t want it messing up his cab.
Out of our tour should come a plan for improvements, particularly on the embankment between Dalziel Place and Kirkwood Place, but it may involve removing trees where the roots are pushing out the retaining wall and creating a hazard.
There may also be a way to tackle graffiti on utility boxes not currently the council’s responsibility. For a fee, the council can take on the work, get the job done faster, create some jobs and make the council some money. Sounds like a plan to me.
Edinburgh should develop TV industry
Stuart Cosgrove, of Radio Scotland’s Off the Ball fame, is heading up a bid to lure Channel 4’s new HQ to Glasgow ahead of rivals Cardiff, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. But where is Edinburgh? Despite a vibrant advertising and creative sector, and better transport links, the capital has effectively ceded broadcast production to the West Coast. There is no reason Edinburgh can’t get in on the act, and the new Damhead film studio might make a difference. The sooner it gets going the better.
A win for Scotland on misleading ads A small but significant victory for Scotland today, with a clamp-down on misleading advertising which disguises hidden delivery costs, a particular problem for more out-of-the-way places in the West and North. The Advertising Standards Authority (I’m a member) today issued new rules which compel advertisers to spell out delivery costs, and if they say free delivery in the UK, it means the whole of the UK.