Hold your horses or your heritage status is at risk, says the man from Unesco

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MAJOR developments in the capital should be halted until an investigation into Edinburgh's World Heritage status is completed, the head of Unesco warned yesterday.

Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of the UN cultural body, believes no more decisions should be taken on key projects like Caltongate and Haymarket until the results of a year-long probe are published.

A team of inspectors will visit the capital in November after Unesco's world heritage committee ordered an investigation into Edinburgh's World Heritage Site. A report, due to be published in the spring, will recommend whether Edinburgh is placed on Unesco's official "at risk" list of endangered sites.

Mr Matsuura told The Scotsman there was mounting concern with Unesco about the impact of major developments in the city and the impact they would have on its skyline.

He said: "Edinburgh's World Heritage Site is very important and it is crucial that its outstanding features are preserved and protected."

The main trigger for the probe was the city council's decision to approve the 300 million Caltongate scheme, earmarked for land on and around the site of a former bus depot, in the Old Town. Two listed buildings face demolition to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre, which will have an entrance on the Royal Mile.

Final approval has yet to be given by the council and the Scottish Government.

Just weeks before Unesco's world heritage committee was due to meet, council planners approved the 200 million Haymarket scheme, which involves the creation of a 17-storey five-star hotel development.

Unesco also made clear that its investigation would cover the proposed redevelopment of the St James Centre, which the council is due to rule on for the first time later this year. Widespread fears have been aired about the impact a new landmark building will have on the skyline.

Mr Matsuura's trip to Edinburgh was announced just weeks after the probe into the capital's World Heritage Status was launched. Mr Matsuura said: "I am a bit concerned about the Caltongate development. I saw for myself the site of the development during my tour and was told not to worry too much about the impact it will have, but the big concern will be how it affects the historic skyline.

"The debates about new developments are not just happening in Edinburgh, but we are opposed to anything which would impact on the city's skyline. Modern high-rises should not be built in historic city centres or in areas where they would have a significant impact. Nothing else should be decided on these schemes until our inspectors have visited and reported back."

A spokesman for Mountgrange, Caltongate's developer, said: "We're not supportive of unnecessary delays in the planning decisions that hold up major investment decisions being made that are important to the economic health of Edinburgh and Scotland."

John Nesbitt, managing director of Haymarket developer Tiger, said: "Our proposals have been referred to the Scottish Government following approval from the council in June. Historic Scotland, the agency charged with safeguarding the nation's historic environment, had no objections."

A council spokeswoman said they wanted to keep details of the discussions confidential.

John Graham, Historic Scotland's chief executive, said: "We don't feel we have a part to play in this process any more."

BACKGROUND

ABOUT 2,000 jobs have been promised by Caltongate's London developer Mountgrange. The scheme involves the creation of a hotel and conference centre, 200 homes, a public square, office blocks and a new arts quarter.

But it involves demolition of two listed buildings as well as the removal of all but the faade of a 1930s tenement block on the Canongate.

More than 1,800 objections were lodged with the council, which has agreed to sell off various plots of land to the developer. Caltongate is the biggest single development in the history of Edinburgh's Old Town. The site was the capital's gasworks in the mid-19th century and it became a bus depot in the 1930. A previous scheme was shelved in 2003.

The site of the Haymarket development, a former goods yard, has lain derelict for more than 40 years. The city council had been planning to redevelop the site itself until it agreed to sell it to Irish firm Tiger, which has pledged 1,700 new jobs.

The current car park at Morrison Street would be replaced by the 17-storey five-star hotel, a neighbouring three-star budget hotel, as well as offices, shops and restaurants.