Brian Ferguson: Alarm bells ringing over Edinburgh culture cuts

Plans to turn the old Royal High School in a luxury hotel were rejected. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Plans to turn the old Royal High School in a luxury hotel were rejected. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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It has been a week of mixed emotions for followers of Edinburgh’s cultural scene, with little sign of any let-up as the year draws to a close.

The dramatic denouement of the saga about the old Royal High School, after years of wrangling over the site, saw a hugely-controversial luxury hotel scheme rejected by just one vote. But it was also the culmination of a campaign aimed at securing a future for the 19th-century landmark as a new concert venue and music school.

There was a stark contrast between the shrewd publicity machine promoting the proposed relocation of the independent St Mary’s Music School to Calton Hill and the disastrous PR campaign behind the hotel development.

No-one could have envisaged what a deeply divisive scheme would have emerged when an “arts hotel” was announced five years ago as the winner of a contest to find a new use for a building left lying largely empty since the late 1960s.

What was not made public at the time, but was clear to anyone involved in behind-the-scenes discussions, is that large-scale extensions would be needed to accommodate the needs and requirements of a modern-day hotel.

By last Christmas, the “arts hotel” concept had been consigned to the past, in favour of attracting a world-class operator to the site in a bid to get the delayed development off the ground.

But by the time images of the £75 million development appeared in the spring, senior figures from the capital’s cultural and heritage circles were plotting to derail the hotel project and line up the building as a new home for St Mary’s.

Although councillors were not officially allowed to consider the alternative scheme when deciding on the hotel project last week, undoubtedly it would have been a crucial factor in the backs of their minds.

There has been a groundswell of opinion in favour of the St Mary’s project, particularly among those who have been bemoaning the loss of several concert venues in the city and the many drawbacks with existing facilities.

The Royal High decision is also fascinating in the light of the recent approval of a new Edinburgh cultural plan, the result of the biggest-ever consultation with the arts sector, which commits the council to supporting the development of “world-class cultural infrastructure.”

The boost for the music school and concert venue scheme has also come months after the Thundering Hooves report on the future of the Edinburgh Festival warned that investment in infrastructure by the city’s global competitors was “starting to expose some of the weaknesses of the Edinburgh offer.”

However anyone under the impression that the Royal High decision heralded a new dawn of cultural enlightenment will have been alarmed by the proposed cuts to the budget for music classes for youngsters in state schools.

With jazz musician Tommy Smith and violinist Nicola Benedetti already emerging as formidable opponents to moves which would see most parents forced to pay tuition fees, the city could soon be grappling with a winter of discontent.

But with the 70th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe in 2017 looming large on the horizon, it strikes me there are clearly opportunities for the city to bolster its cultural credentials by resolving both of these issues - even if a firm hand from the Scottish Government may be required. It is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a reopened Royal High building playing a key role in that anniversary year – and a new generation of musicians taking centre stage.