Conservation and heritage wrangles could send out the wrong message to potential international investors, one of Scotland’s leading developers has claimed.
Bruce Hare, whose development company Duddingston House Properties (DHP) had hoped to start work on the £55m hotel conversion of Edinburgh’s former Royal High School (above) this year, said the project was now facing “heavy opposition” over plans to build two extensions on either side of the A-listed landmark.
He warned that a “world-class” operator signed to run the five-star hotel as its first venture into Scotland could pull out if the scheme gets bogged down in heritage red tape.
Built in 1829, the Carlton Hill school was at one time earmarked for the home of the Scottish Parliament. However, Edinburgh City Council — which has already been accused of neglecting the building — is now being urged to reconsider its agreement to hand over the building to DHP and the Urbanist Group for redevelopment.
One conservation group, the Cockburn Association, has already suggested “mothballing” the former school at a public cost of £7m rather than allow it to be turned into a commercial asset.
“My concern at the moment is that the world is watching what is happening in Edinburgh,” said the DHP chief executive. “If we don’t do anything here because we can’t work with heritage groups to find a solution, what would that say? I think it would say ‘Scotland isn’t open for business’.
“Here we have a proposal that is fully-funded, is going to generate nearly 700 jobs, and will create one of the greatest places in Scotland — yet we cannot work together?
“The rest of the world would look at it and say: ‘Yes, Edinburgh is a fantastic city, but it has a lot of modern ruins.’ This would become another Edinburgh disgrace alongside the national monument on Calton Hill,” he said.
The building has remained unused since 1968 when the high school relocated to another site. Detailed plans for the hotel were announced in December, almost five years after DHP was named as the winner of a council-run contest to find a long-term use for the historic property.
Hare said the delay in unveiling the plans had been due to complex negotiations with potential operators and international investors, but insisted finance was in place to get work underway. “We have brought on board a team of international investors who are as big as they come,” he added. “Getting the money in the first place is a great step forward.”
He said his company would submit a planning application next month, when it will announce the future operator. If approval is granted this year, site work should start early in 2016.
The developer insisted a top-class hotel could only be created at the site with the two large extensions. “The building just isn’t big enough for a hotel of this type without these extensions,” he stressed. “There are not going to be two big glass boxes, they are much more sophisticated than that and will be largely be made out of stone.”
James Simpson is an Edinburgh architect and adviser to UNESCO, which granted the city world heritage status. “Simply ‘marketing’ the Royal High School building to commercial developers, without any real concern for the building’s vital significance and without direct consultation with heritage interests, was an idle and irresponsible act by the city council,” he said.
“The simple, underlying fact of the situation is that the building, and its setting on Calton Hill, are far too important to the city, and to its worldwide reputation, to be handed over for commercial development.”
Edinburgh losing its heritage status is also the major concern for the Cockburn Association. “The old Royal High School is the centrepiece of the Old and New Towns, it’s the link between them, there is its neo-classical architecture, its relationship to the Enlightenment and the fact it’s not just a building, it’s a monument,” explained the association’s director, Marion Williams,
“The embarrassment of turning this building into a six-star hotel would be such a body blow to any credibility that this city has of being a heritage centre.”