John McLellan: Football-style vote of confidence for World Heritage boss?

Adam Wilkinson's fake mock-up of Royal High hotel plan fell short of standards required of Edinburgh World Heritage, writes John McLellan

Various plans have been floated for the old Royal High School for years
Various plans have been floated for the old Royal High School for years

Dave Mackay, Craig Levein, Steven Pressley . . . Tynecastle Stadium has seen some tough tacklers over the years and to that hall of bruising fame could be added Richard Steele. The Jambo nation can be forgiven for failing to recognise the name, for Mr Steele dons not the Hearts maroon shirt but the lawyer’s suit as a top planning QC.

The stadium is the venue for the planning appeal against Edinburgh council’s rejection of the old Royal High School luxury hotel plan and Mr Steele is centre half in the Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels team bidding to overturn the decision.

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As Donald Trump’s representative in the legal tussle over the Menie Estate golf complex, the glowering Mr Steele is well-versed in court-room confrontation and while it was not quite studs up, this week Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson knew he’d been on the end of a crunching tackle after the QC’s cross-examination about his role in the High School hotel wrangle.

The heart of the matter was Mr Wikinson’s use of his own montage of what the hotel would look like for “illustrative purposes” at a protest meeting in Tollcross last year, which he was forced to concede was “not entirely accurate” and should not have been used.

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If it wasn’t quite with the speed of foot and thought of a Kenny Dalglish, Mr Wilkinson avoided admitting it was a deliberate deception, claiming it was all an “honest mistake”. It might well have been an error to use manipulated images during his presentation, and as Mr Wilkinson was not on trial Mr Steele did not go back for afters about honest error versus wilfulness, but the electronic exaggeration of the hotel proposal must have taken some time and can hardly be dismissed as just a slip of the mouse.

It’s debateable whether his admission makes any difference to the result of the inquiry, even though the developers say there was a marked rise in opposition to their scheme after the meeting, but it does call Mr Wilkinson’s judgement into question, especially when the actual visualisations produced by the hotel team are dramatic enough, and were sufficiently arresting to be used by Professor Alastair Disley of the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland at the same meeting.

Edinburgh World Heritage benefits from significant public funding and last year received £1.8m from Historic Environment Scotland, most of which was paid out in grants, plus £94,000 from the city council. The council also recently awarded it a three-year lease to operate the Tron Kirk as a visitor centre.

Mr Wilkinson is a supporter of the rival bid for the Royal High School, the flit of St Mary’s Music School from its current base in the West End, which was granted permission in 2016 and which will remain valid for seven years on the presumption that the hotel plan will fail and the Duddingston House Properties’ rights to the site will expire in 2022.

He is also accorded expert status when consulted on planning applications in the World Heritage area and the combination of the role and the amount of public money from which the organisation benefits means the highest standards of probity should be expected from its director. He might have survived the match with Mr Steele, but there is Edinburgh World Heritage’s reputation to consider. To return to the footballing analogy, the board’s vote of confidence in the manager is awaited.

Thumbscrews persuade city to take a risk
On the theme of historic sports grounds, it would be unfair to say that guns were being held against the heads of Edinburgh councillors this week when the being asked to approve a £39m tender from Graham Construction to build the new Meadowbank sports centre. Let’s just call them financial thumbscrews.

The finance & resources committee was told on Thursday that a £5m grant from SportScotland would in all probability be withdrawn if the starting gun wasn’t fired that very day, and a further alarm was rung that councillors had until next month to accept Graham’s offer or it would be out of date and have to be renegotiated. Upwards.

The total cost is currently estimated at £45.3m, but the report gave a clear warning of a significant risk that the council might not obtain the £20-24m it hopes to raise from developing the rest of the site because of local concerns about housing density and unacceptable pressure on infrastructure and amenities.

Furthermore, the council is now set to halt the sale of the Westbank Street five-a-side football complex in Portobello, leased by Powerleague, and from which the council expected to receive £3m. On the 60:40 split revealed at the committee meeting, it suggested Powerleague would have been in line for £2m from total receipts of £5m, so it would be no surprise if the sports company still demanded the market value for its interests. With some understatement, the meeting was told the relationship “has to be managed carefully”.

A bid from my Conservative colleagues to have a wider debate at the full council meeting in a fortnight’s time was over-ruled by the committee convener and, with risk written through the stadium project like Blackpool Rock, the decision was taken to bash on.

Homes in the harbour

It was a week for big projects in the capital, with approval for the design principles behind the creation of a new district on Forth Ports’ reclaimed Western Harbour land at Newhaven which has been under discussion for over 16 years. Designed around a semi-circular park and linked up with a broad, tree-lined, cycle-friendly boulevard and promenade, the whole site will eventually boast 1,600 homes, mainly for mid-market rent in a project driven by property consultancy Rettie. A planning application is expected early next year.