Unesco advisor faces claim of a conflict of interest

THE integrity of the Unesco advisors set to descend on Edinburgh to examine the city’s World Heritage status has been called into question amid claims of a conflict of interest.
Dr James Simpson. Picture: Phil WilkinsonDr James Simpson. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Dr James Simpson. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Two controversial planning applications are said to have put the Capital’s status at risk in recent months.

Plans to transform the old Royal High School into a luxury hotel and designs for the St James development have attracted a string of objections from leading heritage groups such as Historic Scotland and Save Britain’s Heritage.

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Now a small team of inspectors from the UK committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (Icomos), which advises Unesco, is to visit Edinburgh to examine the impact of the proposals on the city’s heritage standing.

But Icomos-UK has already lodged an objection to the hotel plans, sparking claims of a “conflict of interest” as its vice-president for Scotland, James Simpson, is a founding partner of the architectural firm pushing alternative proposals to turn the A-listed Royal High School into a new home for St Mary’s Music School.

Councillor Cameron Rose, who has previously been a key figure on the city’s planning committee, said Mr Simpson’s role “possibly brings into doubt the independence of Icomos”.

Mr Simpson insisted he had “entirely separated” himself from Simpson & Brown Architects’ role in the St Mary’s project.

Cllr Rose said: “I’m surprised Mr Simpson has been so vocal when he is an office bearer of Icomos. He has been very vocal against the Royal High School proposals. He may not be directly involved [with the proposals], but he is clearly involved with the company which is bringing forward the alternative project.

“I think those who make the decisions, those in the planning committee, will no doubt bear that in mind when they make their decision.”

Mr Simpson said he had retired as a partner at Simpson & Brown but was still a paid consultant.

He said: “I understand that my firm is involved with the trust which is promoting the St Mary’s Music School plans.

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“I should say that ever since that was established there has been a glass wall – a Chinese wall – between me and Simpson & Brown. I’m not communicating with them at all to do with that project.

“All I can assure people of is my own integrity. I would not allow any conflict of interest. My only involvement in the project is in my capacity as a member of the world heritage committee of Icomos-UK.

“I cannot do more than separate myself from the firm as far as that project is concerned. I have no role and no influence as far as that project is concerned.

“I have decided that rather than resigning from Icomos-UK, I have separated myself from the practice.

“I have recognised from the start that there is a potential conflict of interest, but I can only assure everyone that – I hope – I have a reputation for integrity.

“I cannot at this point drop my involvement with Icomos-UK, as clearly I am the member of the World Heritage committee that knows most about Edinburgh.”


James Simpson, Icomos-UK’s vice president for Scotland, is a founding partner at Edinburgh’s Simpson & Brown Architects.

He will be among inspectors examining the impact of recent planning decisions on Edinburgh’s World Heritage status later this month.

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Simpson & Brown was recently appointed by the Royal High School Preservation Trust, alongside architect Richard Murphy, to develop alternative plans to restore the historic building as a school.