Fears grow over future of old Royal High School

The Old Royal High School, Edinburgh. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Old Royal High School, Edinburgh. Picture: Neil Hanna

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DEVELOPERS behind a luxury hotel scheme earmarked for one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated buildings fear investors and operators will turn their back on the project if it becomes embroiled in a lengthy heritage battle.

One of the key figures spearheading plans for the former Royal High School on Calton Hill is warning protracted delays to the scheme will send out a message to the world that “Scotland is closed for business.”

I think it would say ‘Scotland isn’t open for business.’

Mr Hare, chief executive of Duddingston

Bruce Hare said he hoped work would be underway within the next 12 months on the £55 million development, with a “world-class” operator expected to be announced in April for what would be its first project in Scotland.

However the scheme is facing huge opposition because over plans to build two huge extensions on either side of the A-listed landmark, which dates back to 1829 and was long touted as a home for the Scottish Parliament.

Edinburgh City Council, which owns the building, is being urged to rethink an agreement to hand it over to two private firms, Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group. It also stands accused of allowing the building’s condition to slip into steep decline in recent years.

However Mr Hare, chief executive of Duddingston, has accused heritage watchdogs of being deliberately provocative and “sensational” in a bid to whip up opposition.

One group, the Cockburn Association, said it would rather see the building “mothballed” rather than turned into a hotel to safeguard its future, a move Mr Hare claims would cost the public purse at least £7 million.

He also hit out at the “extreme” views of critics who want Edinburgh stripped by UNESCO of its world heritage site status because of the way the council is handling sensitive sites in the historic heart of the city.

Detailed plans for the hotel were announced in December, almost five years after Duddingston was announced as the winner of a council-run contest to find a long-term use for the building. It has lain largely unused since 1968 when the high school relocated to another site.

The developers promise nearly 700 jobs would be created with the development, which it predicts will be worth at least £27 million to the economy every year.

Mr Hare described as the site as one of the best for a new hotel development anywhere in the world because of the views it offered across the city’s landscape, including the East Lothian coastline, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, the Scottish Parliament building, the Old Town and Edinburgh Castle.

He explained that the lengthy delay in bringing detailed plans forward 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. Getting the money in the first place is a great step forward.

“We will make a planning application in April, when we will announce the operator, we will hopefully get through the planning process this year, and will hopefully have started work by this time next year. However the patience of people does not last forever.

“Hotel operators tell us is that if they can’t find the correct site in a city they’re just not interested. They won’t go to a secondary site. In all of Edinburgh’s competitors areas around the world there will be somewhere else.

“My concern at the moment is that the world is watching what is happening in Edinburgh. 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.’

“The council is contracted to me to go undertake this project. They would have to terminate my contract and say ‘cheerio, go away.’ The question would then be ‘what is happening in Edinburgh?’ The message to the world would be that this building is just too sensitive and we can’t agree on it.

“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.”

Mr Hare insisted there was “no way” a top-class hotel could be created at the site without building the two large extensions because of the restrictions with Hamilton’s original building.

However he revealed independent consultants were producing detailed analysis of alternative locations for the hotel as well as alternative uses for the Calton Hill site, to be published to coincide with the lodging of the planning application.

He added: “The building just isn’t big enough for a hotel of this type without theses extensions. 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.

“What really worries me is that we get into a debate where we can’t find a future for this building. The great thing is that it’s not my building. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have lost some money, but at least we’ll have tried. I will be able to look back and say: ‘I had a solution. Nobody else had one.’

“This is a building of international importance, but it’s deteriorated rapidly since 2009. It would cost around £7 million to stabilise and mothball it. We’ve been able to track £27 million which has been spent on the building since it was a school. But how long do we keep going?”

Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “Developers are trying to rull bulldozers through every city, not just Edinburgh. But it will be an international laughing stock if this goes ahead, it is the exact opposite of what Bruce Hare is saying.

“I am also convinced the city’s world heritage status would be lost. 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.

“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.”

James Simpson, an Edinburgh architect and adviser to UNESCO, added: “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.

“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.”

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