Council ignores Old Town site fears

An artist's impression of the Caltongate development
An artist's impression of the Caltongate development
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COUNCIL chiefs have insisted they will not intervene after developers in charge of a huge gap site in Edinburgh’s Old Town hinted they would ignore recommendations from a world heritage body to scale back a controversial development.

The South African owners of a huge chunk of land next to the local authority’s own headquarters have insisted Unesco’s demands – made after the collapse of a previous developer – are unclear and open to debate.

Edinburgh City Council is coming under mounting pressure to order a fresh masterplan for the Caltongate site, which includes several council-owned properties, and two listed buildings, facing demolition.

Four years ago an inquiry was opened into the council’s stewardship of the world heritage site, which includes the Old and New Towns, after complaints about the handling of major developments like Caltongate.

Lukas Nakos, frontman for the South African owners Artisan, insists the centrepiece of the development – a five-star hotel and conference centre – will need to have an entrance on the Royal Mile. He said there was a “level of ambiguity” about what Unesco was recommending for the project.

Last night the council’s planning leader Jim Lowrie said he did not think the developer should be “inhibited” by what Unesco had to say about Caltongate. He said the body’s guidance to the city had no “legal status”, adding: “I don’t see it being a problem.”

The Scotsman revealed last week how Artisan was drawing up a new masterplan for the development site but was hoping to avoid going through a whole new planning process, by remaining “within the bounds” of the scheme approved by the council in 2008.

London-based developer Mountgrange received final approval to build the hotel and conference centre, as well as more than 200 homes, office blocks and a new public square in September 2008. However, by the following March the firm had plunged into administration owing more than £70 million to creditors.

Mr Nakos added: “I have seen what Unesco had to say about Caltongate and we are looking at some of the issues in their report. However, there is a level of ambiguity about what they meant and I’m not sure it is clear and others have said that themselves.

Mr Lowrie said: “I don’t think anything Unesco said will inhibit the building of the hotel.

“There are other parts of the development that could be looked at, such as the height of some of the buildings, but it is critical for the hotel that it is on the Royal Mile. The demolition of the listed buildings was approved by Historic Scotland and the government. UNESCO doesn’t have any legal standing in the planning process.”

But Neil Simpson, director of the Old Town Development Trust said: “The big problem at the moment is all the eggs are in the one basket of a five-star hotel happening. The council needs to go back to the drawing board and start again.”

A spokesman for the Cockburn Association said: “There is nothing ambiguous about what Unesco have requested.

“They are seeking the retention and reuse of the former Canongate Primary School and Old Sailor’s Ark. The Cockburn Association is in agreement.”