Activists urge Royal High School luxury hotel plan axe

New architectural designs by Hoskins Architects for the proposed world-class hotel at Edinburgh's former Royal High School. Picture: Hoskins Architects/Hayes Davidson
New architectural designs by Hoskins Architects for the proposed world-class hotel at Edinburgh's former Royal High School. Picture: Hoskins Architects/Hayes Davidson
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BRITAIN’S leading heritage campaign group has stepped up the pressure on Edinburgh’s councillors to reject plans to turn one of the city’s most celebrated buildings into a luxury hotel.

They have been warned that controversial extensions planned to the former Royal High School on Calton Hill will “violate” the A-listed landmark and “intrude horrifically” on views across the city.

Save Britain’s Heritage (SAVE) has described two “visually dominant” six-storey wings, proposed for either side of the building, as “overbearing and insensitive.”

It is demanding plans to convert the building for an American hotel giant are “firmly rejected,” despite the authority signing a lease agreement five years ago with one of the two Scottish developers leading the project.

And the campaign group has thrown its weight behind an alternative bid to transform the building - which has been lying largely empty for more than four decades - into a new home for an independent music school.

Critics have warned that approval for the development will put Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site status at risk - 20 years after the designation was approved by UNESCO.

Save Britain’s Heritage, which was launched by a group of writers, historians, architects and planners in 1975, was instrumental in working with Princes Charles to save Dumfries House, a run-down stately home in Ayrshire, for the nation.

SAVE describes the former Royal High School was “a landmark historic building of supreme architectural importance.” It believes the plans for the luxury hotel will draw focus away from the original 1825 building, designed by celebrated architect Thomas Hamilton, and have “negative consequences” for other listed buildings and monuments on Calton Hill.

The intervention from SAVE has emerged just weeks after a damning objection to the hotel scheme was lodged by government agency Historic Scotland. Many planning experts believe that move has heightened the prospects of a public inquiry as it opens the door to ministers to call in the hotel scheme if it is approved by the council.

The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, set up in the wake of the capital’s Old and New Towns winning the UNESCO designation, claims advice it has given on the Royal High School over several years has been ignored.

The Royal High School Preservation Trust, which is pursuing the rival scheme which would see St Mary’s Music School relocate from its current base in Edinburgh’s west end to Calton Hill, has offered to buy the Calton Hill building for £1.5 million.

Its scheme, which was announced earlier this year after plans for the hotel development had been made public, is being bankrolled by the American arts philanthropist Carol Grigor, who has ploughed more than £9 million into the Edinburgh International Festival.

Marcus Binney, executive president of SAVE, said: “The latest proposals for the Royal High School must be firmly rejected.

“Thomas Hamilton’s school is one of the most beautiful Greek Revival buildings in Britain.

“Thanks to its magnificent setting on Calton Hill it is a supreme example of the Romantic Movement in architecture.

“The proposed new hotel wings will violate the site and intrude horrifically on many fine views across the city.

“The proposals are the more unacceptable as a sympathetic and appropriate use is available, with full funding to implement it, for the restoration of the building as a school, the use the building was designed for.

“A music school in this position would be a great addition to Edinburgh and would make a very appropriate use of the interior spaces.

“Now that Historic Scotland has issued a full and detailed objection we hope that the planning officers of the council will also recommend refusal.

“This superb building has had a chequered history for too long. It is barely used, deteriorating and needs substantial investment in repairs. The music school proposals offer all this.”

In a letter to the council, SAVE’s case worker Mike Fox states: “The current proposals are an inappropriate and insensitive attempt at reusing the Royal High School, a landmark historic building of supreme architectural importance.

“The built form of the new hotel wings as proposed will draw focus away from the Royal High School and entirely disrupt Thomas Hamilton’s composition, which was conceived and constructed as a complete entity.

“The proposals will have further negative consequences for surrounding listed buildings and monuments, dominating key views across the city towards the Royal High School and Calton Hill, as well as views out across the city from the west.”

A spoksman for the two developers, Duddingston House Properties and The Urbanist Group, said they did not want to comment on SAVE’s submission.

However Willie Gray Muir, chair of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said: “We very much welcome SAVE’s support for our fully-funded proposal to move St. Mary’s Music School to the former Royal High School.

“As an organisation they’ve been involved in some of the most innovative schemes to find new uses for the country’s most important buildings, their stamp of approval is very significant.

“We’re very excited by the way in which our plans are developing and look forward to making further announcements about these proposals shortly. We are working hard to make a detailed planning and listed building application as soon as possible.

“SAVE’s comments, like those of Historic Scotland, emphasise how difficult it is to make a financially viable hotel on the site without fatally undercutting the building’s huge architectural significance.

“I think we can all support the idea of a really first class new hotel in Edinburgh, but just not here.”

The city council agreed a 100-year lease to allow the old Royal High School to become a hotel, after a competition instigated in 2009 following the collapse of plans to convert the building into a national photography centre, due to funding problems.

However in its objection to the latest plans, Historic Scotland has told the council that the proposed wings for the 147-room hotel - which operator Rosewood hopes to open in 2018 - would “dominate and overwhelm” the existing building.