Critics demand rethink over old Royal High School

Plans for the Royal High School 'should reflect its past as a temple to learning'.    Picture: Toby Williams
Plans for the Royal High School 'should reflect its past as a temple to learning'. Picture: Toby Williams
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ONE OF Scotland’s most important buildings should be mothballed for its own protection rather than turned into a luxury hotel, according to a leading heritage watchdog.

The Cockburn Association, formed in 1875 to protect Edinburgh’s historic landscape, is demanding a rethink over plans for a radical overhaul of the former Royal High School on Calton Hill.

It has called on Edinburgh City Council, which owns the celebrated A-listed landmark, to scrap plans to hand it over to private-sector developers and instead find an alternative use which retains it as a key cultural asset.

Controversial plans by Duddingston House Properties, which agreed a 125-year lease with the council in 2010, and the Urbanist Group, which worked on the city’s Harvey Nichols department store, involve building two large extensions on either side of the building.

Its central hall, which was touted as a debating chamber for the Scottish Parliament, would be converted into the hotel’s lobby, in a £55 million scheme said to have attracted interest from “three of the world’s top hotel operators”.

The building has been lying largely empty since 1968 when the school relocated. Around £1m was spent converting it in the run-up to the 1979 devolution referendum.

Duddingston brought in one of Scotland’s leading architects, Gareth Hoskins, to draw up plans for a hotel at the site, chosen from more than 50 schemes. The two developers, who hope to lodge a formal planning application within the next few months, finally unveiled detailed proposals late last year. They claim the “overwhelming majority” of those to respond have been in support.

However, critics are warning the changes planned for the site are so intrusive and inappropriate that they will put Edinburgh’s world heritage status at risk. Susan Denyer, an official adviser to Unesco – which conferred the honour on Edinburgh 20 years ago – told a public meeting earlier this week that the city should be asking whether it was “acceptable to change one of the most important public buildings in Edinburgh to private use”.

In a damning response the hotel plans, the Cockburn Association said it was essential for the future use of the building to reflect its history as “a temple to learning” and for its public status to be protected for “current and future generations of Edinburgh’s citizens and visitors”.

Marion Williams, director of the association, also accused the council of allowing one of the city’s most important buildings to fall into disrepair.

She said: “The main benefit of the proposal and its primary justification is in safeguarding the building from further damage.

“Not only does the council not enforce on others, it also fails to ‘serve notice’ on itself and maintain its buildings such as this one in a reasonable state of good repair.

“We can have little confidence that changes of the sort proposed here do offer any long-term security for the building and we must question if mothballing it intact would not be a safer option.

“Whilst an exclusive hotel could bring economic benefits to Edinburgh, given an understanding of the history of the high school this is not an appropriate use for this civic asset. This will not be a public building.”

David Orr, chairman of the Urbanist Group, said: “Whilst the views expressed so far are overwhelmingly supportive, we recognise that less positive views have also been expressed and we will faithfully ensure transparency on feedback before the planning application is submitted.”

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