Unesco acts over '˜threat' to Edinburgh's World Heritage status

Edinburgh's world heritage site has been thrown into crisis over 'deeply worrying' concerns by Unesco over the quality of new developments in the city and demands for an urgent overhaul of how it is protected.

Picture: Scott Taylor
Picture: Scott Taylor

Officials have told the UK Government of their “strong concern” about the level of protection for the Old and New towns after being lobbied about a string of controversial projects. The world heritage body has intervened after a team of international advisors warned them of a “significant threat” from new developments.

Seven projects have been singled out by Unesco’s advisers following a visit by heritage experts last autumn to examine key sites around the city and hold talks with senior council officials. These projects were also flagged up to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) as causes for concern. They include several controversial schemes which have already been approved, including the overhaul of the St James Centre, the New Waverley development, which is transforming a huge swathe of the Old Town next to Waverley Station, and the long-delayed transformation of the former Donaldson’s School into a luxury housing development.

However, several forthcoming developments are also on Unesco’s radar, including plans to turn a huge swathe of the New Town into a modern commercial quarter and plans to turn the historic India Buildings on Victoria Street in the Old Town into a new hotel.

Picture: Scott Taylor

The strongest criticism is reserved for the £75 million luxury hotel development earmarked for the former Royal High School on Calton Hill, which has been in the planning stages for nearly seven years after the city council agreed to a long-term lease with a property developer.

A damning dossier, which Unesco acted on within weeks, claims the handling of both approved and proposed developments has “tipped the balance” away from conservation to inappropriate development.

Unesco has warned an official investigation may have to be ordered into the impact of projects such as the old Royal High School hotel.

Its key advisory body, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), said the scheme, which was rejected by the council but may be appealed, “should not be approved”. There is said to be an “urgent need” to review the city’s approaches to development after the approval of several “substantial, overtly-modern buildings and the increasing potential impact of further redevelopment”.

Picture: Scott Taylor

Writing to the DCMS, Mechtild Rossler, the director of the Unesco World Heritage Centre, also cited the Royal High School development as an example of a project threatening Edinburgh’s world heritage site.

She said: “I would like to express the World Heritage Centre’s strong concern about the state of urban conservation in Edinburgh, due to the Royal High School project and other projects related to urban development. The quality and pervasiveness of development projects being pursued without due consideration for conservation is deeply worrying.”

The Icomos dossier, to which Unesco, the UK and Scottish governments have been asked to respond, along with the city council, warns there is an “ongoing threat” to Edinburgh’s world heritage status.

It states: “Regrettably the current situation, including both approved and proposed developments, appears to have tipped the balance inappropriately, away from conservation, towards inappropriate development. There is therefore an urgent need to reconsider, revise and re-frame current approaches to development, including conservation and adaptation of existing structures and construction of new structures, so as to deliver greater focus on values, to incorporate appropriate expertise and to improve engagement with the community.”

The Icomos dossier said the controversial design chosen for the St James hotel features “an unusual, visually-striking, curved and articulated metal facade which has a scale and appearance that is not consistent with the surrounding built form”. Icomos states: “If and when constructed, the hotel will be an intrusive element which will adversely impact on the visual integrity of the world heritage site.”

The Icomos report describes the old Royal High School as “one of the truly exceptional historic buildings within the world heritage site”.

It adds: “The current proposals represent a level of intervention to both buildings and setting that would be inconsistent with the architectural majesty of the original design conception and which would therefore have a substantive adverse impact on the outstanding universal value of the world heritage site.”

Ian Perry, the city council’s planning leader, said: “Our Unesco world heritage status is something that the council is immensely proud of and we take our management role of it very seriously.

“Our current five-year world heritage management plan comes to an end this year and, as such, we are working closely with our partners Historic Environment Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage on the next plan, which will see us through to 2021.”

Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: “We strongly welcome Unesco’s offer to help us strike the delicate balance between the conservation of Edinburgh’s extraordinary built environment, a key driver of the local economy, and the planning of big new developments.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: “We have ensured that Unesco is kept informed about a number of development proposals in Scotland in recent months, including development proposals in Edinburgh. We are considering Unesco’s concerns and will be providing our advice to the DCMS shortly.”

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