Caltongate: 'It's certainly a vast improvement on what it replaces'

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OPPONENTS of the Caltongate development have pinned their last hopes on both the procedural blip which delayed final approval of the planning application and more importantly the noises from Unesco representatives that the city's World Heritage status might be threatened if the development goes ahead.

As expected, councillors ignored the concerns and yesterday nodded through the plans. They were right to do so.

Just how serious the Unesco threat is has never fully explained, only that Unesco inspectors are to conduct an investigation later this year and report in the spring. The organisation's director general, Koichiro Matsuura, rather unrealistically said that further decisions on projects like Caltongate should be delayed until the results of their probe are known, as if they should be able to drop in at the last minute and delay projects that have been years in the planning.

It is understandable that anti-Caltongate campaigners should clutch at such straws, but it is unlikely that either Mr Matsuura or his inspectors have had a detailed look at what is proposed or indeed what was there before.

In the rush to condemn the development, perhaps it is being forgotten that World Heritage status was granted when New Street was dominated by a derelict 1930s bus garage and what is being removed is an unremarkable brick building and a Victorian school of which there are scores of similar examples throughout the city.

It is fair to say that from the look of the designs Caltongate is not going to rank alongside St Petersburg or indeed the New Town as a new classic of urban planning but neither is it as damaging as some make out and it is certainly a vast improvement on what it replaces.

In damning the plans, opponents are turning on other recent developments as examples of how badly wrong city planners are getting it. Yet in places like Fountainbridge excellent new designs which blend in well with older surroundings show what can be achieved.

The truth is that really cutting edge design, as is springing up in places like Amsterdam and Berlin, would have the antis spluttering their tea into their morning paper. If anything, Edinburgh's new buildings have been marked by a restraint for the very reason that the historic environment places considerable limits on what is likely to get through. It is noticeable that the more innovative designs have largely been small scale, like the Storytelling Centre and the Poetry Library, and even then the former has been subjected to not inconsiderable criticism.

The University and 60s government offices apart, the developments which damaged the Old Town the most were Waverley Station and the bus depot. Caltongate doesn't come close.