Kevin Buckle: More to Royal High than planning rules

If the battle for old Royal High was a fight based on media savvy and celebrity endorsement then it would have been stopped a long time ago in favour of the music school. As the incumbents in what is now becoming a long-running dispute it is understandable that the hotel developers will see their number one priority as obtaining planning for the hotel but winning a few friends on the way would do them no harm!

Thursday, 2nd March 2017, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 24th March 2017, 10:22 am
Rival schemes are vying to develop the old Royal High School. Picture: Scott Louden

The Royal High School Preservation Trust (RHSPT) may have had no rights over old Royal High but they have harried from the sidelines and won many a media skirmish albeit with little hope of success until they had their planning application unanimously approved by Edinburgh Council while the hotel was appealing against its narrow 8-7 refusal.

While the music school has a host of heritage bodies supporting it what is not clear is why these same groups did nothing in all the years the old school was falling into disrepair. To many neutrals it looks like the RHSPT bid is an attempt to stop the hotel as much as it is to help the music school expand. Many ideas had come and gone and finally when it looked like the building would be fully restored and at no cost to the public purse a rival idea appears to put a spanner in the works.

Now if the old Royal High had no other future the music school would be a great idea give or take some concerns about the works planned to the actual building. However it is a good idea not only too late but one that fails to match the benefits the hotel will bring to the city.

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Scenes such as this at last years Mardi Gras are sadly not typical in the Grassmarket. Picture: Scott Louden

Certain things matter in planning and others don’t but if the two projects were looked at more with a layman’s view then maybe some of the nitty-gritty of how the music school and hotel will operate if successful would be looked at more closely.

To examine all the pros and cons would take up far more space than I have here but there are simple things to consider. What happens at night? While the music school will be closed with just occasional concerts the hotel will have bars and restaurants all open to the public as well as a choice of venues.

Even during the day Regent Road is a dead end for footfall which needs to be brought in. I’m sure the RHSPT will make a great job of creating a public space on the west side but will people really make their way up just for that? On the other hand one thing you can be sure of is that hotels bring footfall to a street. Another concern is what happens during the months the boarding school is closed? The fact it could then be used as a hotel serves only to rub salt in the wounds.

Many objectors to the hotel simply don’t like the buildings and their construction, thinking something more in keeping would be appropriate and that of course is a perfectly reasonable view to take. However, the council planners specifically required that the old school should still stand out from the other buildings so “in keeping” was not an option.

Scenes such as this at last years Mardi Gras are sadly not typical in the Grassmarket. Picture: Scott Louden

Similarly the views to the school are considered of great importance to planners and the heritage groups while the general public are for the most part completely unaware. One expert’s stunning view is another person’s jumbled mess! No doubt part of this confusion is the fault of conflict within Edinburgh Council itself. There seems to have been virtually no communication between the council’s economy committee keen on a shiny new hotel and the council planners advising nothing should be built on the west side at all. The RHSPT has a strong case that the hotel does not comply with the planning advice given while the hotel can rightfully point out that they won the competition with a plan that by necessity had to involve building on both sides of the school.

Neither side help themselves claiming overwhelming support. 99 per cent for the music school based on the completely unscientific method of counting objections to the hotel, while the hotel conducts professional surveys that show they have 90 per cent-plus of the public on their side.

In a way having the two hotel options of 127 and 147 rooms and the music school all judged together makes sense but asking for it to be a government decision has left many understandably unhappy. The hotel developers owe it to the public to put their case more clearly and convincingly and then maybe they would be pleasantly surprised. Having said that it would now seem hard for them to get a fair hearing after openly criticising so many involved in the process.

We have now reached a point where there is not even a process that everybody will be happy with never mind a solution. The hotel developers are in the driving seat and it is still theirs to lose but they dramatically need to improve their people skills and public perception as if they are to deliver all that they promise they will need the support of many people and bodies that while not opposing them are still needing to be convinced.

Hanging’s too good for them..

I promise this is the last time I’ll mention this but I enjoyed Avalanche’s three years in the Grassmarket – and it could have been much longer!

Figures just published this week show that yet again footfall fell by the huge margin of 17.9 per cent in January. The downward spiral has been relentless now for several years and nobody is being held accountable.

Edinburgh Council, local councillors, local residents and the Grassmarket BID themselves all have had a part to play and yet the only people to suffer are the businesses.

Every now and again there is a scheme that completely fails and yet nothing is said or done about it. Remember last April in this very paper the £50,000 five-month “Grassmarket Neat Streets” trial brought to you by the environmental charities Hubbub and Keep Scotland Beautiful and the Greater Grassmarket Business Improvement District.

The problem is people get paid for these projects no matter how unsuccessful they are and those who commission them again get their salary no matter what. Businesses meanwhile . . .

Who can forget the “ambitious plans launched to reverse plummeting footfall in the Grassmarket and create a ‘Covent Garden-style’ atmosphere of outdoor markets and entertainment” of May 2015.

It clearly doesn’t have to be this way as by coincidence the High Street footfall increased by 17.9 per cent. Footfall on Leith Walk is now three times that of the Grassmarket when it used to be half.

The Grassmarket may be better known for its hangings but surely heads must roll!

Vinyl countdown

As the British Music Experience prepares to open in Liverpool and a meeting is arranged in Manchester to decide if it should have its own museum celebrating the city it would appear that never has an idea been more relevant but despite fantastic support we are still to find a venue.

I do however expect to have news next week and as always a big thank you to everybody who has helped us reach this point. We are of course still looking for vinyl collections and memorabilia that we can add. For more information [email protected]