Royal High School hotel plan ‘will save building’

DEVELOPERS behind a luxury hotel scheme earmarked for one of the Capital’s most celebrated buildings fear investors and operators will turn their back on the project if it becomes embroiled in a lengthy heritage battle.

This artist's impression shows the potential scale of the extensions developers say are necessary to convert the old Royal High into a luxury hotel

One of the key figures spearheading plans for the former Royal High School on Calton Hill is warning protracted delays to the scheme will send out a message to the world that “Scotland is closed for business”.

Bruce Hare said he hoped work would be under way within the next 12 months on the £55 million development, with a “world-class” operator expected to be announced in April for what would be its first project in Scotland.

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However, the scheme is facing huge opposition over plans to build two huge extensions on either side of the A-listed landmark – revealed for the first time in new pictures today – which dates back to 1829 and was long touted as a home for the Scottish Parliament.

The city council, which owns the building, is being urged to rethink an agreement to hand it over to two private firms, Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group. It also stands accused of allowing the building’s condition to slip into steep decline in recent years.

However, Mr Hare, chief executive of Duddingston, has accused heritage watchdogs of being deliberately provocative and “sensational” in a bid to whip up opposition.

One group, the Cockburn Association, said it would rather see the building “mothballed” than turned into a hotel, a move Mr Hare claims would cost the public purse at least £7m.

He also hit out at the “extreme” views of critics who want Edinburgh stripped by UNESCO of its world heritage site status because of the way the council is handling sensitive sites in the historic heart of the city.

Detailed plans for the hotel were announced in December, almost five years after Duddingston was announced as the winner of a council-run contest to find a long-term use for the building. It has lain largely unused since 1968 when the high school relocated to another site.

The developers promise nearly 700 jobs would be created with the development, which it predicts will be worth at least £27m to the economy every year.

Mr Hare described the site as one of the best for a new hotel development anywhere in the world because of the views it offered across the city’s landscape, including the East Lothian coastline, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, the Scottish Parliament building, the Old Town and Edinburgh Castle.

He explained that the lengthy delay in bringing detailed plans forward had been due to complex negotiations with potential operators and international investors, but insisted finance was in place to get work under way.

“We have brought on board a team of international investors who are as big as they come,” he said. “Getting the money in the first place is a great step forward.

“We will make a planning application in April, when we will announce the operator. We will hopefully get through the planning process this year and will hopefully have started work by this time next year. However, the patience of people does not last forever.

“Hotel operators tell us that if they can’t find the correct site in a city they’re just not interested. They won’t go to a secondary site. In all of Edinburgh’s competitors’ areas around the world there will be somewhere else.

“My concern at the moment is that the world is watching what is happening in Edinburgh. If we don’t do anything here because we can’t work with heritage groups to find a solution, what would that say? I think it would say ‘Scotland is closed for business’.”

Mr Hare insisted there was “no way” a top-class hotel could be created at the site without building the two large extensions because of the restrictions with Hamilton’s original building.

However, he revealed independent consultants were producing detailed analysis of alternative locations for the hotel, to be published to coincide with the lodging of the planning application.

He added: “The building just isn’t big enough for a hotel of this type without these 
extensions. There are not going to be two big glass boxes, they are much more sophisticated than that and will be largely made out of stone.

“What really worries me is that we get into a debate where we can’t find a future for this building. It is of international importance, but it’s deteriorated rapidly since 2009. It would cost around £7m to stabilise and mothball it. We’ve been able to track £27m which has been spent on the building since it was a school. But how long do we keep going?”

Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association heritage watchdog, said she was “convinced” the city’s world heritage status would be lost if the hotel plans went ahead.

She said: “The old Royal High School is the centrepiece of the Old and New Towns, it’s the link between them, there is its neo-classical architecture, its relationship to the Enlightenment and the fact it’s not just a building, it’s a monument.

“The embarrassment of turning this building into a six-star hotel would be such a body blow to any credibility this city has of being a heritage centre.”

James Simpson, an Edinburgh architect and adviser to UNESCO, added: “Simply ‘marketing’ the Royal High School building to commercial developers, without any real concern for the building’s vital significance and without direct consultation with heritage interests, was an idle and irresponsible act by the council.”