Brian Ferguson: Battle lines drawn over Royal High

ROYAL HIGH saga looks set for a protracted battle, writes Brian Ferguson
The artist's impression of plans for a hotel at Edinburghs former Royal High School. Picture: ContributedThe artist's impression of plans for a hotel at Edinburghs former Royal High School. Picture: Contributed
The artist's impression of plans for a hotel at Edinburghs former Royal High School. Picture: Contributed

The battle lines have been firmly drawn but there is no end in sight to the saga over what should become of one of Edinburgh’s most celebrated landmarks.

You would have to live under a rock in the capital to be unaware of the bitter debate over the fate of the former Royal High School on Calton Hill.

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There must have been more column inches, never mind online commentary, devoted to Thomas Hamilton’s 19th-century masterpiece than any other building in Scotland in the last 12 months.

It has had serious competition, but the scheme to convert the A-listed building into a new luxury hotel is fast shaping up to be the most controversial development in modern times in Edinburgh.

A few weeks ahead of a crucial meeting to discuss the planning application, there are bitter divisions over what should become of the building and what impact the scheme will have on the city’s world heritage status if it is given the green light.

When developers unveiled plans for the A-listed landmark last December it appeared as if Edinburgh was on the brink of securing its first major new hotel development for almost a decade.

While all manner of budget hotels have emerged in that period you probably have to go back to the summer of 2009, when Hotel Missoni opened its doors on George IV Bridge, to recall when a new “world-class hotel” opened.

That is what was promised when developers announced they had shortlisted three international operators for the Calton Hill site. What was noticeably absent from their announcement was any mention that two large-scale extensions would be needed to meet the demands of a “distinctive hotel of international standing.”

When the first images from architect Gareth Hoskins finally emerged earlier this year, it was obvious to any observers of planning and development in Edinburgh that the project would face an uphill battle, such was their impact on the landscape of Calton Hill.

So it has proved with a long list of objectors and campaign groups speaking out against the hotel, which the American operator Rosewood has signed up to for its first development in Scotland.

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A planned opening date of 2018, announced in early September, now seems hopelessly optimistic, regardless of any decision councillors make in the middle of next month.

With Scottish Government agencies Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland among the opponents of the hotel project, and local government minister Marco Biagi have protested in his capacity as an Edinburgh MSP, a public inquiry would seem almost inevitable if the council gives the green light.

Last week came a significant new report, from experts on the UK’s heritage sites, who visited Edinburgh in the wake of the Royal High designs emerging. It was heavily critical of the quality of new developments proposed for the city.

Much to the dismay of the hotel scheme developers, they also have had to deal with the unwelcome distraction of a rival proposal to take the building back to an educational use without the need for the two controversial “wings.”

There has been a careful game played by those behind the proposed relocation of St Mary’s Music School, quietly lobbying for support and subtly applying pressure on the council, while keeping their powder dry, so far, on what their own completed project will look like.

And the city council is now facing a classic no-win scenario, with warnings that the hotel threatens Edinburgh’s world heritage site status having to be weighed up against the prospect of a damaging public inquiry and/or a protracted legal battle.