Edinburgh World Heritage watchdog urges councillors to end Royal High School hotel saga

The body charged with safeguarding Edinburgh's World Heritage Site status has urged councillors to reject a plea to give developers three more years to turn the city's old Royal High School building into a hotel - and instead let it become a music school and concert hall.

The old Royal High School building on Edinburgh's Calton Hill has been lying largely empty since 1968.
The old Royal High School building on Edinburgh's Calton Hill has been lying largely empty since 1968.

An over-provision of hotel rooms in the city and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on tourism businesses have been cited by the Edinburgh World Heritage watchdog as key reasons to reject a plea to allow two firms until 2025 to secure permission for a five-star hotel.

Ahead of a crunch meeting on Thursday, which will be held in private, councillors have been told that the proposals put forward for the hotel “would cause serious harm to the World Heritage Site and to this building of international repute.”

Edinburgh World Heritage has urged councillors to back the rival project, which would create a new home for St Mary’s Music School in the city, on the grounds that the proposed hotel operator, Rosewood, has withdrawn from the project.

And they have been warned that there is no “coherent argument” for the council to extend its current contract with the hotel developers, which was agreed following a design competition in 2010, after the Scottish Government rejected plans last yea for a 125-bedroom hotel, which would have seen two extensions created on either side of the existing building.

The developers, Duddingston House Properties and the Urbanist Group, have promised councillors that a “a globally recognised five-star boutique hotel” will be created at the 19th-century site on Calton Hill if they are allowed to extend the existing legal agreement, due to expire in 2022, for another three years. They have pledged to drop the proposed “west wing” and reduce the number of rooms to around 75.

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The two firms have warned that the building, which as been largely lying empty since the school relocated in 1968, faces being “sold off to the highest bidder” if the council walks away from the contract.

The music school project already has planning permission from the council, but has come under fire from the hotel developers who claim it is “fraught with risk" and will involve the radical remove of heritage fabric” from the A-listed landmark and the “hollowing out” of rock to create space for new facilities.

The Scottish Government rejected plans to transform the former Royal High School on Calton Hill into a new hotel in October - 10 years after the council agreed a deal with developers.

Edinburgh World Heritage has joined forces with the Cockburn Association and the New Town & Broughton Community Council to write to councillors asking them to bring the hotel saga to an end.

A three-page dossier states: “We agree that the pre-eminent objective is to secure a long-term sustainable use for Thomas Hamilton’s masterpiece, recognised as one of the finest examples of Greek Revival architecture in the world.

“The proposed music school, which has planning consent and is largely funded already, is one such possibility and one which we all support.

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“We understand that Rosewood, the much-heralded luxury hotel operator has pulled out and that no alternative operator has been identified. The principle behind the existing contractual arrangements therefore seems to be eroded, if not invalidated.

Councillors have already backed plans to turn the Old Royal High School in Edinburgh into a new music school and concert hall.

“In February 2020, before the city went into lockdown, the Edinburgh Hotels Association said that businesses have been left in a ‘fragile’ state due to the addition of more than 5,000 new rooms over the past 10 years. It reported that hotels were

unable to fill beds, even during peak periods

"The Covid pandemic has left tourism and hospitality in dire straits with hugely worrying prospects for existing businesses.

"Much has been made about the music school proposals and their impact on the fabric of the

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building. Whilst planning consent runs to 2023, listed building consent is still required. The significant amounts of detailed information on the building that emanated from the Inquiry can help inform this process and provide opportunities for revisiting aspects of these proposals.”

Urbanist founder David Orr said: “We respect the view of the heritage organisations but respectfully point out again that, after extensive debate it is the Scottish Government Reporters, not us, who conclude that the music school scheme is not the best option to preserve the Royal High School building itself.

"The world has seen and overcome many crises before. Covid will influence hospitality but absolutely not diminish its importance for the future of our capital city, citizens and visitors. Hospitality is rightly at the heart of Edinburgh's economy, respecting the past but also creating jobs for now and the future.”

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Joy Yates

Editorial Director

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