Controversy over Caltongate sparks United Nations probe

Share this article

UNESCO has launched an investigation into Edinburgh's World Heritage Status after concerns were raised over the handling of the controversial Caltongate development.

The UN heritage watchdog's inspectors will visit the Capital later this year to assess conservation levels in the city, while the Scottish Government has been asked to submit a report defending Edinburgh's status by February next year.

Delegates at the 2009 Unesco summit in Seville will then decide if Edinburgh needs to be put on the "at risk" register" for not sticking to the heritage group's strict rules.

The Scottish Government's approval for the 300 million Caltongate scheme last month – which ended opponents' hopes for a public enquiry – has sparked the Unesco investigation.

Officials from the organisation today said they were "deeply concerned" that the Government had ignored rules that state the watchdog must be consulted on any major development in a heritage site before approval is granted.

It is understood the investigation will also take in the planned massive redevelopment of the St James Centre, as well as Forth Ports' plans to transform the face of Leith Docks over the next 20 years.

London and Liverpool are already under investigation by Unesco after similar concerns were raised about new developments there.

Government and council chiefs today said they were confident that the Unesco inspections will be a success.

A spokesman for Unesco's world heritage committee said: "The committee voiced concern at the potential impact of the Caltongate development and were also deeply concerned that it was approved by the state government in June without complying with the operational guidelines for world heritage sites."

The Caltongate plans, which include a five-star hotel, conference centre, and scores of shops, offices and homes, won local politicians' backing in February.

Despite nearly 2000 objections, the scheme received the final go-ahead last month after Scottish Ministers ruled out a public inquiry.

The project involves the demolition of two C-listed buildings – the Sailors' Ark and the former Canongate Venture school – and the first phase of works expected to be completed by 2012.

Steve Cardownie, Edinburgh's deputy council leader, said: "I don't think we'd be too perturbed over this.

"It's fairly commonplace for Unesco to re-evaluate World Heritage Sites and that kind of scrutiny goes along with the title. I don't think Edinburgh has done anything to devalue its status."

Edinburgh was awarded world heritage status for its Old and New Towns in 1995.

Campaigners from the Save Our Old Town campaign wrote to Unesco earlier this year to highlight their concern that there had been "no adequate justification" for the demolition of two listed buildings as part of the Caltongate proposals.

Scottish culture minister Linda Fabiani, said: "I'm confident that when the Unesco mission visits our capital, it will see a vibrant, growing city which embraces its cultural and architectural heritage as well as managing an improvement in development that benefits Edinburgh as a whole."