Unesco slates Caltongate scheme

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A DOSSIER into Edinburgh's World Heritage Site has strongly criticised the handling of a controversial development in the heart of the Old Town.

The Unesco report, delivered to the city council on Friday, has singled out for criticism the way the 300 million Caltongate scheme was approved by the authorities despite protests from a host of heritage groups.

Councillors approved plans to knock down two listed buildings to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre less than a year after detailed plans were submitted.

The scheme had earlier been backed by Historic Scotland and was subsequently approved by the Scottish Government, after ministers ruled out a public inquiry.

Yesterday, the city council was facing fresh demands to urge the developer to produce new plans for the site. Criticism by bodies such as the International Council on Monuments and Sites, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association is widely believed to have triggered the Unesco investigation, which was ordered at the body's annual world heritage summit in Quebec last July.

The council is thought to have borne the brunt of criticism on Caltongate, although Historic Scotland and the Scottish Government are also believed to have come under fire from the inspectors, who visited the capital last year. One area of criticism is that the council and the developer both failed to pay enough heed to the protests over the development, or make substantial changes before a final planning decision was made.

About 2,000 jobs have been promised by Mountgrange, the developer of Caltongate, which includes 200 homes, a public square, office blocks and a new arts quarter. Last week the developer rebuffed claims the project was in danger of being shelved.

Jim Lowrie, the city council head of planning, said: "(The report] does criticise us over the Caltongate development. We are going to have to look at (that] before we respond in detail."

Edinburgh city council has several weeks to submit an official response to the report, which will be discussed at the next world heritage summit in Seville this summer.

However James Simpson, one of Scotland's leading conservation architects, said: "Too many developments in Edinburgh have been pushed through as a result of greed on the part of developers and fear on the part of councillors and officials.

"I sincerely hoped that the downturn will mean that developments like Caltongate do not go ahead and that it will give the council breathing space to rethink the whole approach."

Sally Richardson, the spokeswoman for the Save Our Old Town campaign, said: "Since this site is unlikely to be developed for the next few years, we would like to see the council encourage some kind of temporary use, such as community allotments or a new park."