Edinburgh's Dunard concert hall's spat with St James Quarter was never a case of Beauty versus the Beast – John McLellan

As crowds begin to trickle back to Edinburgh for Festival time, and Fringe shows pop up out of nowhere, a drama in which Edinburgh’s entire arts establishment played a leading role is entering its final act.

The Dunard Centre will still have a 1000-capacity main auditorium despite having to be scaled back.
The Dunard Centre will still have a 1000-capacity main auditorium despite having to be scaled back.

The good news is that Edinburgh is now on track to get its first purpose-built concert hall for over 100 years, an accessible city-centre home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in a new venue which will take audiences of up to 1,000 people.

With its proximity to the new clubs, pubs and restaurants in and around St Andrew Square and the new St James Quarter, it should be just the kind of thing needed to keep Edinburgh on the international destination map with an exciting new story to tell.

But it’s been framed as filthy lucre against the high arts, the tussle of mammon vs music in which beauty has succumbed to the beast and the beautiful, inspirational Dunard Concert Hall’s great drum auditorium rising above Edinburgh’s historic New Town has been beheaded.

According to the Times, the International Music and Performing Arts Charitable Trust (Impact) Scotland had “bent” to the wishes of St James owners Nuveen Real Estate, and The Scotsman reported the city council “was forced to broker peace talks” between the two because the dispute about the concert hall design was heading to the Court of Session. I don’t think it was that simple.

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From the start this was a battle of wills. The concert hall’s well-connected backers strong-armed the auditorium into the shopping list of projects for the £1.3bn Edinburgh region City Deal, and then brought in celebrated architect and concrete specialist Sir David Chipperfield. On the other side was an admittedly powerful institution ─ responsible for the pensions of thousands of American teachers ─ which justifiably sought to protect its £1bn investment in the biggest city centre development since the New Town itself.

The concert hall’s inclusion in the City Deal became the crux of the matter because, as a key partner, Edinburgh Council was effectively applying to itself for planning permission.

That’s not in itself unusual and happens all the time with council-sponsored projects on public land, but it puts a responsibility on the authority to be seen to be treating its own applications like any other.

Instead, the approval brushed aside glaringly obvious policy clashes which only a few years before resulted in a recommendation to refuse for the St James project.

Planners had insisted the St James could not be clad with limestone because the predominant New Town building material was sandstone, and a special planning meeting was held just to debate materials at which councillors wisely rejected the officer recommendation.

Four years later the same committee, same policy but with different councillors narrowly approved the use of concrete, and the effect of that decision will become apparent when the building is up, because the sample on display at the back of Elder Street has been developing a green tinge of algae.

The big issue was scale. St James and Impact are getting along swimmingly now, but the circumstances are worth repeating because this week’s coverage indicates a certain amount of revisionism is going on, with a strong and unfair suggestion that Edinburgh is only being denied the grand concert hall and studio theatre it was once promised because of Nuveen’s self-interest.

Planners rejected the old Royal High School hotel scheme because the new accommodation wings were too dominant for the historic buildings, but the giant drum concert hall looming well above the grade-A Dundas House like the Independence Day spaceship was apparently perfectly OK.

For the St James developers, this meant the concert hall was blocking views from the hotel across George Street and casting walkways into permanent shade; having invested so much in the new district, they were not about to simply roll over. Had the council done its job properly and told Sir David Chipperfield during the consultation process that his plans were unacceptable, the threat of judicial review would not have been necessary. This is not being wise after the fact, because four members of the planning committee which approved the design voted against it.

It’s convenient for the concert hall’s cheerleaders to blame the legal dispute for the massive cost hike from an a £40m estimate in the City Deal to the £75m revealed this week, but the fact is the site was so difficult and the plans so grandiose that the bill was unrealistic from day one.

Scaling back the design to comply with planning policy has actually given the Impact Trust and the Dunard Fund, which will provide the vast majority of the cash, a fighting chance of delivering the scheme. The loss of seven metres is much more than was necessary to satisfy Nuveen and the stepping up effect from St Andrew Square to the top of the hotel appears to have been lost.

What really made the difference in bringing the sides together was not the council playing Henry Kissinger but a different approach from the new concert hall team. Under the chairmanship of International Festival director Fergus Linehan, Scottish Chamber Orchestra chief executive Gavin Reid, and executive director Joanna Baker, a pragmatic, non-confrontational style brought progress and work is expected to start in 18 months.

There is now real co-operation with the St James to find solutions to the considerable access problems for trucks bringing concert equipment for which, astonishingly, planners were prepared to accept the temporary suspension of tram services.

It’s all history now and Edinburgh will get a splendid new venue, but like the fury over the avoidance of planning permission for the vast Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, the council needs to accept it cannot ignore its own policies when it suits its own interests. As has always been the way in Edinburgh, understanding other points of view and finding compromises usually brings results.

John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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