AN INVESTIGATION has been ordered into Edinburgh's World Heritage Status, The Scotsman has learned.
An official inquiry, which may lead to the capital being stripped of the title by Unesco, was launched yesterday at a summit of the world heritage committee in the Canadian city of Quebec.
Delegates said they were particularly concerned about the potential impact and handling by the Scottish Government of Caltongate, a massive new development in Edinburgh's Old Town, which was approved despite around 1,800 objections being received.
The Scottish Government, which approved the scheme last month after dismissing demands for a public inquiry, has been condemned for failing to consult Unesco before coming to a final decision on the scheme, which will see two listed buildings demolished to make way for a five-star hotel.
The inquiry will also examine the proposed redevelopment of Leith's docklands over the next 20 years and the planned revamp of the St James Centre.
A team of Unesco inspectors will visit Edinburgh later this year to assess its "state of conservation". The Scottish Government has been ordered to submit its own dossier by February of next year. The 2009 Unesco summit in Seville will then decide if there is enough evidence for Edinburgh to be placed on the "at risk" register.
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 Scotsman understands that Unesco officials are adamant Caltongate fell under the category of "major restorations or new constructions which may affect the outstanding universal value of the property". According to its guidelines, Unesco should be consulted before any such development is ruled on.
The opening of the inquiry into Edinburgh's world heritage status, which Unesco awarded to the Old and New Towns in 1995, will be a major concern for the city council and the Scottish Government.
Councillors have come under mounting pressure from their own officials and business leaders in the capital not to turn down major developments amid claims Edinburgh is losing out on investment to Manchester and Glasgow. However, heritage and conservation groups have repeatedly warned that Edinburgh's heritage status is being put at risk by over-development of sensitive sites.
About 2,000 jobs have been promised by Mountgrange, the developer of the 300 million Caltongate scheme, which involves the creation of a hotel and conference centre, 200 homes, a public square, office blocks and a new arts quarter.
Councillors approved the vast majority of the Caltongate scheme at the first time of asking. The same happened last month when a 17-storey hotel at Haymarket was approved despite claims it would ruin views from as far afield as the Dean Gallery and Inverleith Park.
Liverpool is already being investigated by Unesco amid concern over the scale of development at its waterfront, while a separate inquiry is under way into the impact of new skyscrapers near the Tower of London.
Historic Scotland endorsed the Caltongate development, but has been fiercely critical of the proposals for Leith Docks and the St James Centre.
Historic Scotland declined to comment yesterday, but culture minister Linda Fabiani, who is responsible for the agency, 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."
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."
The St Kilda archipelago, New Lanark and Orkney's "Neolithic Heart" are among Scotland's other world heritage sites.
Neighbours hit roof over plan for sloping building
IT MAY look like a perfectly innocuous modern building. But this sloping house is at the centre of the latest controversy over whether modern development should be allowed in the historic heart of Edinburgh.
One of Scotland's leading architects is behind plans for the "bookend" building he claims will repair damage done by an "ugly gable-end" in the capital's New Town. He has bought roughly half of a garden in the area for a 500,000 luxury home for himself.
But Richard Murphy, made an OBE last year, has triggered a storm of opposition from neighbours who claim the new building will ruin the look of the Georgian terrace in Hart Street.
The designer of award-winning buildings including Dundee Contemporary Arts, Edinburgh's Fruitmarket Gallery and Stirling's Tolbooth says his new home will be one of the most environmentally-friendly in the city and will win architectural plaudits.
However, neighbours have branded his designs "suitable only for dog kennels".
Mr Murphy has designed several controversial conversions in the New Town, including modern "mews" flats in Dublin Street Lane and a Japanese-style house on Circus Lane.
A petition says his latest design will look "completely out of place" in the Georgian terrace and will claim the attention of "everyone who ventures into Hart Street".
Mr Murphy said he fully expects council officials to recommend his plans are rejected, but has pledged to appeal.
He said: "I know it will be controversial, but I'm simply trying to place a piece of contemporary design in a historic context. I want people to imagine this building having been in this location for 20 years and whether they would rather have an ugly gable end instead. It will go on to win awards. People will never argue for it to be demolished."
Gordon Peters, 64, a health consultant, of Hart Street, said: "This is the World Heritage Site. It just looks so out of place. There's no attempt to disguise it."
Another neighbour on Forth Street, who asked not to be named, said: "People are horrified at what Richard Murphy is trying to do. It will be a horrible eyesore that will also affect the privacy and enjoyment of these gardens by a huge number of people."
A 17-storey five-star hotel development Mr Murphy designed for a gap site next to Edinburgh's Haymarket railway station was approved last month – despite one councillor comparing it to "an alien spaceship dropped in from Doctor Who".