Exclusive:Music school vision for Edinburgh landmark dropped as revamp is dramatically scaled back
A long-awaited rebirth of one of Edinburgh's most iconic landmarks has gone back to the drawing board after the cost of the project more than doubled and plans to relocate a music school there were ditched.
An ambitious vision for the future of the Royal High School on Calton Hill is being dramatically scaled back after the bill for the planned scheme soared from £45 million to around £110 million.
The council-owned site will no longer provide a new home for St Mary’s, an independent music school currently based in the west end, despite its relocation being the main element of the planned project since it was announced in 2015.
The charitable trust which has been working with the school insists it is still pursuing plans to establish a new National Centre for Music at the site.
However plans for a new concert hall in the original 1829 building, designed by architect Thomas Hamilton, are to be scaled back due to the cost of creating a new main entrance and foyer.
The funding problems have emerged months after councillors approved a final lease agreement and early work was carried out for a detailed feasibility study.
Scotland’s biggest arts philanthropist, Carol Grigor, had previously pledged to bankroll the entire project through her Dunard Fund.
However the Royal High School Preservation Trust, which the Dunard Fund is represented on, has blamed “global economic pressures” for the scaling back of the scheme.
A brand new building was proposed in the grounds for staff and pupils at St Mary’s, which is now investigating other options in the city for a new home.
When the music school plans were first announced, they were seen as a major threat to controversial plans to turn the A-listed building into a luxury hotel. The latter scheme was eventually turned down by the Scottish Government after a public inquiry, with councillors later agreeing to return the site to its original use.
A more ambitious vision was announced in 2021 after the council put the building on the open market, including the National Centre for Music idea. The music school was said to be the “anchor” for the whole project, then priced at £45 million, with a further £10 million pledged from the Dunard Fund to meet initial running costs.
It is understood the new plans being drawn up will have to fit within this budget.
Trust chair William Gray Muir said: “In light of the changing economic backdrop, the trust’s professional team has undertaken a detailed feasibility study which regrettably has concluded that creating suitable new facilities for a specialist music school, in new buildings adjacent to Thomas Hamilton’s original school is simply not possible within our existing budget.
"Although different to our original plans, the new vision is genuinely exciting with greater public access and even more significant public benefit
“The absolute priority of the board is the preservation of this building and putting it back into the public life of Edinburgh.”
St Mary’s chief executive John Reid said: “Obviously we’re very disappointed with the news, however we’re investigating a number of other options and are confident we’ll have an alternative capable of delivery within the timescale originally envisaged for the Royal High School renovation.”
Council leader Cammy Day said: “We’re aware of the proposed change to the scheme and remain supportive of a project which will preserve a key historical building in the city.
“Officers were informed of these changes last week, this isn’t returning to the drawing board, it’s about preserving the refurbishment of the building for public use.
“The dropping of the music school element of the project is primarily a matter for the Trust and the music school. Our key aim is and was to bring the building back into public use.
“The council's lease agreement with the charity is not affected and there will not be a new process to seek potential new uses for the building.
“The council has not been asked to fund any of the proposed redevelopment of the building.”
However Taco van Heusden, co-founder Urbanist Hotels, which spent years pursuing the luxury hotel project for the old Royal High School building, said: “The creation of a new entrance and foyer to solve the much-debated visual impact issues to Calton Hill was always going to be exceptionally expensive.
“It is a shame it took the Royal High School Preservation Trust eight years to come to the same conclusion.
“The trust and its backers campaigned vigorously for the right to redevelop this grade-A listed building of international significance and we look forward to seeing the next iteration of their plans."
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