Royal High School site's cultural rebirth should be catalyst for action on empty building across Edinburgh – Brian Ferguson

It is a rare occasion in Edinburgh when the city appears to be united behind a decision made by its elected councillors.

That moment certainly seemed to arrive when they gave the green light to a vision for the rebirth of one of the city’s best-known landmarks.

More half a century after the school relocated from the site, councillors have backed the idea of returning the Calton Hill building to its original purpose.

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On the face of it, the decision was something of a no-brainer.

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Efforts to turn the site into a luxury hotel, complete with significant extensions, had dragged on for more than a decade and brought increased scrutiny into the council’s handling of major developments.

Although the council itself had approved idea of the building being used for a hotel, two schemes were rejected by the council’s planning committee, while the Scottish government eventually kicked an appeal into touch.

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The hotel developers had been dogged by a rival bid for the site, spearheaded by an independent music school and Scotland’s biggest private supporter of the arts, which raised its ambitions significantly once a new bidding process opened.

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Edinburgh's old Royal High School: new future gets unanimous approval
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The former Royal High School on Edinburgh's Calton Hill will become home to a new National Centre for Music under proposals backed by councillors.

Crucially, the involvement of Carol Grigor – the key figure behind a proposed new concert hall in nearby St Andrew Square – in the Royal High School vision has ensured the council can be confident that the funding is in place to realise new ambitions for the site to become home to a National Centre for Music, as well as a home for the Edinburgh-based St Mary’s Music School.

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While it will no doubt take several years for the new musical vision to become reality, it can only be hoped that the decision will signal a major change of direction for the handling of historic sites in the city.

A rebirth for the Royal High School site should also be an exemplar of how cultural activity can ensure a sustainable future for any building, big or small.

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For too long, the assumption has been that the best use of a site is for a new hotel or student housing, even if that has meant knocking down an existing building.

And for too long in Edinburgh, historic cultural assets have been left to decay without any real attempt to work with the cultural sector and creative industries to bring them back to life.

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There have been some signs of optimism, particularly with the project to create a new home for Edinburgh Printmakers in the historic former rubber factory beside the Union Canal and the relocation of the Collective Gallery into the old Calton Hill observatory.

But the Royal High School decision has also coincided with the demolition of a landmark grain silo in the middle of Leith Docks, within sight of its new film studio, a floating hotel and a new whisky distillery. Given the shortage of studio space for artists and exhibitions in the area, it smacks of a big lost opportunity.

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If Edinburgh is as serious about sustainability as many of its politicians claim, they should instigate an urgent trawl of the entire city to make clear where there are empty buildings and that they are open to offers of how to bring them back to life, starting with the growing number of them on Princes Street.

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Neil McIntosh

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