Andrew Wilson: Nimby threat to Edinburgh success

An artist's impression of how the proposed Royal High School hotel development might have looked.
An artist's impression of how the proposed Royal High School hotel development might have looked.
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EDINBURGH is a magnificent city I am now glad to call home and truly mean it.

But sometimes its innate conservatism and lack of ambition frustrate me. A lot.

There is something in its relative success and that of its middle classes that can make it very pleased with itself, thank you very much, when it should reach for much, more. Too many fine people are happy with their not insubstantial lot when they could be part of making it a truly global city: modern, humming with commerce and the beating heart of a confident, outward-looking Scottish economy.

This week’s close call by the city council to reject plans for a five-star hotel on the old Royal High School site, shamefully derelict for nearly half a century, is world class only in its short-sightedness and the economic self-harm that it commits.

Of course, we must preserve the heritage and essence of the capital and all that goes with it. But that cannot stand if it means pockets of economic desert where resources of substance could reside.

St Andrew Square now shames Charlotte Square because it is open to the public at the heart of their city while its neighbour at the end of George Street is behind locked gates. It’s embarrassing for Edinburgh and all the residents of the square who make it so. Where else in our world?

And the old Royal High School is another embarrassment to the city and those charged with leadership over it.

Scotland needs five-star hotels. We have only 2,929 five-star beds in the whole country. Remedy that and more conferences, events and tourism will bring investment to the country at a time we really need it.

With this hotel would have come a superb public space preserving the essence of the building while at present it is a locked monolith of nothingness, a temple of inaction.

One otherwise capable MSP gave evidence of concern for 26 trees that would be cut down. Really? Plant a thousand more native hardwoods in the city as part of the agreement to proceed. That wood was not seen for these trees.

We are to believe that a new St Mary’s music school is the answer. Its 83 pupils include 33 boarding from around the world in a private school with good support for equal access based on talent alone from the Scottish Government. A great thing it is too. It should be nurtured as a jewel in Scotland’s educational crown. Will it ever get the funding it needs to transform this site? Who knows. I am bound to ask if there really are better ideas for it why none have taken root in five decades.

The hotel plan is fully funded and ready to roll. With it would come hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of tax revenues to fund public services and improvement. The school would not bring a fraction of that and could be located anywhere in the city.

Taking big decisions to improve our infrastructure always meets reaction preferring inaction, whether it’s transport, housing or commercial investment. Each day Edinburgh makes choices like this, and fails to progress ambitious planning and development, is another day we fall behind our potential.

The city could unlock billions of value for Scotland if its leaders could properly create a transformation of its built and digital infrastructure. The country and the world want to come here, but we make it hard for them.

People I respect enormously disagree with me on the hotel project. But I plead with all in power locally and nationally to make our economy and its long-term wellbeing the heart of all such decisions they face.

The risk with decisions like this is that they signal to investors the world over that Edinburgh and Scotland are a little too much trouble to be worth the effort. That is what troubles me most right now.

All of us need to understand that the economic outlook for the UK is full of risk in a world manufacturing the same. For Scotland the prospects are for under-performance compared with even a fragile UK because of the sectors that matter most to us, and the relative size of the public sector.

This is serious. Very serious. And it should occupy the front of the minds of all our policy-makers and those who hold them to account every day.

This issue also highlights the tension between the need for local control and the need for strategic improvement for the good of the whole country and of future generations.

Stirling Council took a similar decision rejecting Judy Murray’s plans for the Park of Keir development for a museum, tennis and golf centre, funded by 19 resort homes and a four to five-star hotel. But the “don’t invest in my back yard” message went up there too. What a complete shame.

Scotland faces enough challenges in the years and decades to come. We could really all do with minimising the self-harm along the way. «