Kevin Buckle: The elephants in the rooms where decisions are made for Edinburgh

While last week's column focused on the Royal High School inquiry I actually received even more comments about the much smaller piece on the Royal Mile and my last sentence: 'There is a huge irony in hearing the Royal High School inquiry talk endlessly about the views from every conceivable angle while the same concerned parties do nothing about the Royal Mile.'
An artists impression showing the inside of the IMPACT Centres concert hallAn artists impression showing the inside of the IMPACT Centres concert hall
An artists impression showing the inside of the IMPACT Centres concert hall

First of all there are many who are quite simply fed up with the lack of action from Edinburgh Council in dealing with a number of issues with the Royal Mile and the fact that there was a series of workshops over five years ago that came to nothing only highlights this.

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Whether the Old Town BID, just about to appoint a new project manager, can do anything will depend first on whether they are successful in the ballot in April but what is certainly true is there seems to be little pressure from the heritage lobby for improvement in such an important site.

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With the chance to comment on the planning application for the IMPACT Centre ending this week it was interesting that when I looked on the council website there were only nine comments. Some will remember there were thousands of comments about the Old Royal High hotel proposal so nine is a tad low.

What makes this even more surprising is that there seems to be so little controversy about a building that unlike the RHS hotel proposal has got bigger rather than smaller and is made of concrete. Stakeholders were, I was led to believe, happy with the size of the original 700-capacity building but it has now expanded to accommodate 1000, causing concern.

It was hard to miss all the fuss over the nearby St James Quarter with the sandstone versus limestone debate finally decided in favour of the latter so the fact the IMPACT Centre is to be built in concrete without a peep from organisations like Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association is odd indeed.

The Royal High School hotel isn’t the only project to attract the heritage lobby’s attention and the Ross Development Trust plans for West Princes Street Gardens and the replacement for the bandstand has also faced much criticism. Some of this I would suggest is justified but gets lost among other far less persuasive arguments.

As with all projects there will of course be pros and cons and often these heritage bodies raise very valid and important points but it is the lack of balance that often spoils their argument.

At the RHS inquiry some of the professional witnesses have bent over backwards to support the music school proposal while ignoring the benefits the hotel brings. The hotel’s QC getting witnesses to begrudgingly agree with the positive elements of the hotel has recently become a daily occurrence.

Planning is such an important matter that really it shouldn’t be entrusted to councillors who often have little experience in this area but on the other hand as the RHS inquiry has shown involve highly qualified professionals and lauded academics and they end up arguing about things that 99 per cent of the population just don’t care about. Quite where the middle ground lies I don’t know.

The expiry date for comments on the IMPACT Centre ends tomorrow, and while I’m sure there will be some added as the deadline approaches the comparison with the Old Royal High is startling. Comments should be a useful tool for the council but if they are overwhelmed by what is essentially the mobilising of an angry mob then the process becomes pointless.

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There was an added twist to all this when on Wednesday at the inquiry the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland admitted they had to take down an image for the proposed hotel as it was misleadingly inaccurate though it then turned out it was still on their Twitter account via a tweet from Edinburgh World Heritage.

Then it was revealed later as Adam Wilkinson, the director of Edinburgh World Heritage, gave evidence that he had produced the photomontage, despite there being a correct image already available, to be displayed with his talk at a public meeting encouraging people to object. 

It has to be said Mr Wilkinson had no hesitation in apologising for his actions but for any neutral it was a damaging admission coming from the head of a public body dealing with a highly sensitive issue. That Mr Wilkinson then went on to support the music school proposal so wholeheartedly only confirmed the views of the conspiracy theorists.

Of course both the Royal High music school and the IMPACT Centre share financial backing and influential supporters from within the heritage lobby. There is a feeling among those outwith the heritage cabal that if they don’t get you then the residents’ associations will and going forward this clearly needs to change.

Edinburgh is a wonderful city with more to protect than most but small interest groups are operating in plain sight to try to run the city as they see fit. The IMPACT centre will clearly be an asset for Edinburgh but there is no doubt that massing and scale are an issue as are the materials to be used so if it sails through planning at the same time another similar project facing similar problems is facing a public inquiry only one conclusion can be drawn.