Edinburgh accused of giving Unesco ‘slap in the face’ over Old Town plan

Experts insist that unless major changes are made to the Caltongate project, it would effectively be "slapping Unesco in the face". Picture: Neil Hanna
Experts insist that unless major changes are made to the Caltongate project, it would effectively be "slapping Unesco in the face". Picture: Neil Hanna
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EDINBURGH City Council has been told it risks damaging the reputation of the capital if it ignores demands from world heritage experts to change a multi-million pound development in the city’s Old Town.

Experts claim the local authority would effectively be “slapping Unesco in the face” if it refuses to insist on major changes to the £300 million Caltongate development, next to the city’s Waverley Station.

Criticism is mounting of a deal agreed between the council and a consortium of South African firms that will see them revive plans for a hotel, conference centre, 165 new homes, 30 new shops and around 160,000sq ft of new offices.

The Caltongate scheme was brought back to life earlier this week when it emerged that the newly-formed consortium Artisan had bought a huge gap site out of administration.

Councillors will be urged to intervene to save a former school building and a historic homeless hostel on New Street, both of which face demolition. They have to approve the sell-off of various assets for £3.4m for the full scheme to happen.

Historic tenements on the Royal Mile, designed by celebrated architect Ebenezer MacRae, will also be knocked down to become part of the hotel, which the developers claim is being targeted at five-star operators.

However, a senior adviser to Unesco has claimed it would be “deeply depressing” for the council to press ahead with the scheme in the current climate and risk the city being left with an “inadequate” development.James Simpson, vice-chairman of the UK International Council on Monuments and Sites, said the development would be of “long-term detriment to the city” if it went ahead unchanged.

He told The Scotsman: “This is far too big a development. It is a poor and inadequate scheme and I was hoping the recession would have seen these plans altered. It is very difficult to see how it could be built to the sort of standards Edinburgh deserves.”

The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland has demanded the council accepts “clear advice” from the world heritage bodies to save two listed buildings and scale back the height of the £300m project next to Waverley Station.

Spokesman Euan Leitch said: “Unesco has given very clear guidance that this development would have an impact on the outstanding value of the world heritage site. There is an opportunity for the council to influence the developer to make changes, particularly those that affect the listed buildings.”

Jim Johnson, historian and author of the book Renewing Old Edinburgh, said: “The Unesco mission endorsed many of the views of the local opposition and urged the city and Historic Scotland to make significant revisions to the overall Caltongate strategy in order to protect the two listed buildings and to prevent the construction of a modern building which would block the view from the top of Jeffrey Street to Calton Hill.

“It would be slapping Unesco in the face to ignore that advice, but that is what appears to be happening.”

Dave Anderson, the council’s city development director, said: “The disposal of the council’s assets to Artisan will provide numerous economic benefits and kick-start the regeneration of this key city centre site and allow Edinburgh to compete on an international level by delivering sought-after quality accommodation of a standard not yet offered in the city.”