A £300 MILLION development in Edinburgh's historic Old Town has been thrown deeper into chaos after Unesco inspectors demanded council leaders have the whole scheme returned to the drawing board.
Councillors are set to face international condemnation at a world heritage summit in Seville next month after a damning report urged wholescale changes be made to the Caltongate scheme – even though it has received final approval from the Scottish Government.
The future of the project – which includes a five-star hotel and conference centre on the Royal Mile, more than 200 homes and a cultural quarter – was put in doubt this year when developer Mountgrange went into administration.
Leaked documents obtained by The Scotsman reveal that heritage inspectors are demanding a reprieve for two listed buildings threatened with demolition, the scrapping of a modern building which would have blocked views from Jeffrey Street, and a full review of how the development would impact on views from Calton Hill.
Unesco's report, which the city council received in February, said changes were needed to avoid the development impacting on the "outstanding universal value, authenticity and integrity" of the city's world heritage site.
Although Mountgrange could have resisted any attempt to change the scheme, the fate of the site is now in the hands of the council, as it has retained ownership of land the developer had agreed to buy which is integral to the five-star hotel.
The council is expected to face a major dilemma over the future of the site if Unesco's world heritage committee approves the report's recommendations, as expected. The local authority has had two other major developments called in for public inquiries within the past few months, as well as having to deal with a Unesco investigation triggered last summer.
Referring to Caltongate, Unesco's inspectors recommended the "integration rather than demolition of two listed buildings" and the "total redesign" of a huge part of the development.
Unesco's report will also recommend the creation of a "buffer zone" around the current world heritage site.
The report also states: "There is a need for clear policies in relation to height controls within the world heritage property ... which should be developed on the basis of key views and vistas from within and outside the property."
James Simpson, the Edinburgh-based conservation architect and a leading critic of the Caltongate scheme, said: "It's really up to the council what happens with this development now because of the issues involving site ownership.
"The council could connive with another developer to go ahead with the consented scheme, but I think these recommendations are 100 per cent correct. It would be totally inappropriate for the council to ignore what Unesco has to say about Edinburgh. Now is the time for a bit of reflection and humility."
Sally Richardson, spokeswoman for the Save Our Old Town campaign, which has spent years battling Caltongate, said: "Unesco's report offers a golden opportunity to rethink the whole development."
Jim Lowrie, the city council's planning convener, said: "A decision on the Caltongate scheme has been considered and agreed by the planning committee. We are of course aware of the comments made by Unesco in their draft report and we await the outcome of the World Heritage Committee later this month."