Heritage site ‘is hindering city progress’

Lorn Macneal. Picture: Esme Allen
Lorn Macneal. Picture: Esme Allen
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An award-winning conservation architect has warned that Edinburgh is in danger of being crippled by a planning system “terrified of offending” the city’s World Heritage status.

Lorn MacNeal said that any alterations proposed for historic homes were automatically blocked by city planners, leaving the properties “blighted” by their listed status and unable to be turned into “workable”, modern accommodation.

He said that “draconian” attitudes which stop homes from being altered for modern living are rendering properties useless for contemporary families.

Edinburgh was granted World Heritage status by Unesco in 1995, offering protection to areas of the Old and New Town.

However, modern lifestyle choices for homes such as an open-plan kitchen or en-suite bathroom need to be considered when planning permission for listed buildings is sought, Mr MacNeal said.

“I do not look to discredit a listed building, but merely to ensure this draconian attitude in planning that the owner is merely the ‘transient custodian of this historically listed building’ must change,” he said.

“These historic homes were built in response to the socially engineered needs of that period. Time has moved on and, yes, we must protect the significant parts of these buildings – the frontage, the true principal rooms, the stairwell – but attitudes within the planning system must adapt to allow change in order that these homes may be enjoyed.

“The key question, the prerequisite that every officer should start asking, is ‘does this really matter?’ and if it doesn’t then it’s time they really must start letting go.”

He added: “The whole New Town has evolved over more than two centuries with charm and character. We have seen the introduction of projecting shop fronts, an eclectic mix of attic dormer windows and cast-iron balconies.

“If you ask now to add a dormer window in a street full of them, or a projecting shop front, or anything that may alter the external fabric, then it will be resolutely denied by a system terrified of offending our city’s World Heritage status.”

Councillor Ian Perry, the city’s planning leader, said: “The World Heritage site should not be seen a barrier to development in the city centre. An economically successful city centre is critical to the future of the World Heritage site.

“It is inevitable that new developments will be attracted to the centre, and this is important for the city to evolve. We are committed to managing this process and ensuring that the greatest consideration is given to its historic environment.

“Seventy-five per cent of the buildings in the World Heritage site are listed and it is important that changes are made in a way which respects the character of the individual building as well as its part in the wider conservation area.”