The Old Royal High School is now centre stage after five years of behind-the-scenes activity leading up to the current, well advanced, proposals for a six-star hotel.
However, there are broader concerns as we have perfect storm conditions that threaten not only this iconic building, but the wider historic built environment of Edinburgh. The current quality of decision-making by the council is questionable at least, the time for corrective pressure from heritage groups has never been more important.
As the local authority reels with increasing debt, reduced staff and growing demands on services they are confronted by a development industry enjoying economic recovery and unprecedented rich pickings.
“I always said you should never trust a bank with property, or a property developer with money,” said Peter Rees, the former chief planner of the City of London.
Planning policies are continually ignored, listed building status is rendered meaningless, affordable housing quotas are waived, height limits breached, and the interests of citizens totally ignored.
A report was commissioned by the council in 2013 and produced by property agents GVA, CBRE and Jones Lang LaSalle which led to the “Edinburgh 12”, sites in the city identified as having the greatest economic impact. These sites include the Old Royal High School, Donaldson’s College, Caltongate, St Andrew Square, Fountainbridge, Haymarket, India Buildings, Edinburgh St James and King’s Stables Road.
Councillor Frank Ross says “We are keen to work with developers and potential investors to identify deliverable opportunities. As we continue to engage with developers and investors we expect further sites to come forward for inclusion and are keen to ensure that there is a continuous supply of sites.”
Like the Royal High, the effort that has gone into destroying South St Andrew Square and the listed buildings of high value to the city, makes me wonder what good this does and if it really helps the city’s long-term prosperity. Prize assets are being removed to be replaced with something new and mediocre. We also have the deflationary and blighting impact of the council’s scramble to build new and unwanted assets on the city’s periphery, such as the Business Gateway. These developments move jobs from current locations to new, causing blight in all the redundant buildings left behind. We have abundant evidence of this in the numerous office-to-anything conversions coming through the planning system.
Imagine the waste of resources, both public and private, in bringing controversial projects such as the Royal High through the pre-development and planning process. Caltongate is another example of a process where the dire outcome bears no relation to the effort that went in on all sides. Edinburgh St James is a similar, though perhaps less glaringly obvious, example.
We may protest over the wilful destruction of our beautiful city, as did Lord Cockburn in 1849 in his letter to the Lord Provost on the Best Ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh, but with our planning system stripped of any real power, skills, vision or ambition, as one developer puts it: “The system is ripe for sharp developers to drive a bulldozer right through.” And so they will, until something is put in their way to stop them.
Marion Williams is director of the Cockburn Association www.cockburnassociation.org.uk