Heritage watchdog objects to new Edinburgh 'film temple' over loss of public space

A bid to transform a controversial public square in Edinburgh’s culture quarter by building a new multi-million “temple of film” has run into trouble after the city's long-running heritage watchdog revealed it would be opposing the plans.

The Cockburn Association claims that allowing the new home for the Filmhouse cinema to be built in the middle of Festival Square would set an “undesirable precedent” and could pave the way for “expectation of development” of similar spaces across Edinburgh.

It has raised formal concerns with the city council about the future “commodification” of the square, which sits between the Usher Hall and the Sheraton Grand Hotel, if the city council grants permission for the £60 million development, which would also become a new home for the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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The Cockburn has also “questioned the need” for the development given the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the hospitality sector in Edinburgh and the global film industry.

However it has supported the idea of the council-owned square being regularly used for festivals and events in future – a key proposal in the planning application for the cinema complex.

The complex, which is hoped to attract audiences in excess of 800,000 a year, will be up and running by 2025 if planning permission and funding can be secured.

The Cockburn wants the Centre for the Moving Image, which runs both the Filmhouse and the film festival, to instead focus on redeveloping their existing home on Lothian Road.

Andrew MacLeod, vice-chair of the Cockburn, said: “This development would result in a significant impact to the local area and would undermine the character and potential of an existing civic space.

Festival Square in Edinburgh's west end would be transformed under the plans for the new £60 million Filmhouse development.

"There would be a significant loss of open space, which would not be retrieved elsewhere. It would also set an undesirable precedent and create expectation of development for other open spaces.

“We believe strongly that the square can and should be improved, so that it could provide an excellent hard-surfaced civic space capable of hosting major events and festival activities.

"Alternatively, it could be redesigned or ‘greened’ as a carbon/climate mitigation space to help the city meet its aspirations to be carbon-neutral by 2030.”

CMI chair Ken Hay said: “Far from being a commodification of public space, what we are seeking to do is make Festival Square a public space.

If planning permission and funding are secured, the new Filmhouse will be open by 2025 under the planned timetable set out by its operators.

"Our plans would bring more people to enjoy an actively-managed, hard-standing, public space in the city. The building would bring 800,000 people a year to what is in itself largely a public space with cinema screens, the outdoor roof terrace, and cafes and restaurants.

"The larger number of breakout and education spaces in the building would allow us to work with significantly more people from all communities and giving our many partner organisations more space to come together.

"It is very much a vision of a space for the people of Edinburgh to come together in.

“We have considered many, many alternatives in Edinburgh but all were significant compromises to this vision of a space for everyone in the city who watches, wants to learn about and who work in film.

"It is an opportunity to be a proud and outstanding beacon for the film industry, which is growing significantly in the city and in Scotland.”

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