A UNITED Nations body has criticised the decision to let a major new development go ahead in Edinburgh without a planning inquiry, it emerged last night.
The International Council of Monuments and Sites UK (ICOMOS) is concerned about the impact the 11-storey Quartermile development being built on the site of the former Edinburgh Royal Infirmary will have on the city's skyline.
Edinburgh's Old and New Town is one of 31 historic places which ICOMOS is considering putting on its Heritage in Danger List, a "last chance saloon" for historically important sites.
ICOMOS has been critical of the Quartermile flats in the past, claiming the towers "pierce" the city's skyline.
It cites Cologne as a cautionary example - the German city was put on the 'in danger' list in 2004 after city authorities approved the building of high-rise flats near its cathedral.
However, Edinburgh's planning leader, Councillor Trevor Davies, said he was confident Unesco would not strip the city of its heritage status.
Unesco has the final say on world heritage sites, but takes advice from ICOMOS.
Cllr Davies said: "I spoke to a very senior Unesco officer recently and brought her up to date with the various developments we were thinking about.
"She took the view that Edinburgh is looking after its heritage sites very well. Even if Unesco said our status was at risk, it would send ICOMOS officers from a country other than the UK to investigate."
Meanwhile, in another potential row over the city's cultural heritage, tourism leaders are planning to introduce the UK's first voluntary bed tax in Edinburgh, to raise up to 5m a year to protect the city's historic streets and buildings.
A compulsory levy imposed by the city council has been rejected by businesses as it would damage the capital's ability to compete with other European destinations, such as Dublin and Paris.
But a report commissioned by Edinburgh Tourism Action Group says voluntary schemes in other cities have proved successful in raising funds for tourism-related projects while avoiding the pitfalls of a statutory tax.
Edinburgh's hotels and guesthouses, which would collect the levy, provide around 12,000 beds per night. Consultant Deloitte Touche has calculated that with, on average, 78% of beds occupied every night, a 1 levy could raise more than 3m and a 2 levy around 5m.
If the scheme goes ahead, funds could be spent on environmental initiatives and cultural projects to enhance the city's appeal to tourists.
Simon Williams, of ETAG, said: "Studies have found that if you ask people in the right way to contribute towards a destination then there is a good response. ETAG will now be looking at whether this can be applied to Edinburgh."
One motivating factor was that public funds from bodies such as the city council, the Scottish Executive and Scottish Enterprise may be cut in future because of other priorities. Williams said: "There could be a gap in funding for projects that would help Edinburgh stay ahead of competing destinations. That's why we are looking at a voluntary levy."
ETAG represents around 1,000 tourism-related businesses in the city from the airport to gift shops. It says it wants to maintain the city's reputation as a high-quality "must-see" destination but a statutory tax, as imposed in some rival cities, would be counter-productive.
A report by Deloitte Touche on imposing a tourist tax says: "Voluntary levy schemes typically generate less revenue than compulsory schemes yet are often more attractive, as businesses have the choice to participate and visitors are not forced into making a payment unwillingly. Compulsory schemes may generate more revenue but are often regarded as being a hidden tax or price rise."
London's administration considered a statutory bed tax a decade ago but the proposal was dropped after fierce opposition from hoteliers. If Edinburgh goes ahead, it would be first major city in the UK to introduce any form of bed tax.
VisitScotland, the national tourism agency, said: "We welcome the industry taking the lead on imaginative and creative proposals to increase the amount of money invested in tourism over and above existing public sector investment."