Auld Reekie appeals to the People of Scotland and beyond…

4160223895The closing date for public comments concerning the application of Duddingston House Properties to convert Edinburgh’s old Royal High School into a hotel is today, Tue 6th Oct (and next Tuesday 13th just to add confusion!).

The significance of this category A listed national monument can hardly be overstated with its magnificent setting at the foot of Calton Hill, affording one of the finest inner city views in the World looking out to Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags.

Described as a masterpiece of Greek revival architecture, Historic Scotland regard the building as having “cemented Edinburgh’s reputation as the Athens of the North”.

Yet having once been considered an appropriate home for the Scottish Parliament the building has been underused for many years and has now suffered from serious neglect and deterioration under the ‘care’ of Edinburgh Council, which while advancing the case for disposal actually suggests that the Council has lost credibility in managing public assets.

The Edinburgh Civic Trust, the Cockburn Association, consider that a hotel is not an appropriate use for this civic asset stating that,

“as an exemplary work of art, the design and purpose of the High School should be seen in its cultural context. After the reformation, the intention was to make knowledge accessible across Scotland, through establishing schools in every parish. From an enlightened nineteenth century perspective the meritocratic intent of this institution, embodied as a work of art, sows early seeds for an egalitarian society. Edinburgh’s High School building, as a temple to learning, is the architectural pinnacle of this enlightened policy”.

An alternative proposal is being pursued by the Royal High School Preservation Trust which would restore the building to its original purpose by integrating St Mary’s Music School which is currently seeking to relocate. However, a representative for Edinburgh City Council has stated that the “old Royal High School is not on the market as the Council has a legal agreement with Duddingston House Properties to lease it. The site is now subject to a planning application for a hotel, which has been submitted to the Council and will be considered in due course.”

The fate of the Royal High School has been decided by EDI, the arms length Edinburgh Council economic ‘development’ body, promoting the disposal and redevelopment of significant public assets under a scheme known as the Edinburgh 12 ‘initiative’ which includes St James Centre, Quartermile, Kings Stable Road and India Buildings.

Each of these proposed ‘developments’ have typically attracted controversy, the most infamous to date being ‘Caltongate/ New Waverley’ which involved the closed door sell off of public assets, including Council housing on the Royal Mile, Common Good property and Jeffrey St arches, which were disposed by way of a 125 year lease “on a peppercorn rent”; hardy a recommendation for having secured ‘best value’, as policy stipulates. See: www.sootspace.blogspot.co.uk/

439218207In the face of considerable opposition to Caltongate/ New Waverley, this particular protracted debacle, which has done much to undermine the wellbeing of the local Old Town community, now in serious decline, concluded with the granting of planning permission, including demolition consent of listed buildings. Rather than enhance the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Status as required, the ‘development’ attracted scrutiny from UNESCO which led to a visit in 2009 by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the conservation watchdog that advises Unesco.

In light of the recent controversy surrounding the ‘golden turd’ redevelopment of St James Centre (See: Rosemary Goring Herald article – A Capital Crime), and now the audacious proposed fate of the old Royal High School, the City has courted yet another visit by ICOMOS, putting the twin World Heritage Status ever more at risk.

Reflecting on the broader context as a consequence of recent scandals and revelations of mismanagement (toy town trams costing upwards of £1 billion, statutory notices etc), Edinburgh Council has ratcheted up a staggering debt of billions which is said to be costing tax payers £100+ million/year just to service, as revealed by Council Leader Andrew Burns in a blog post of 2011.

If these figures are correct, and indeed four years on likely to be worse, in the context of the current global financial chicanery and the knock on effects of cuts to local public services (£67 million over the next three years), the so called ‘austerity’ measures would appear to actually count for little, thereby seeming to precipitate the sell off of valuable public assets.

There will be some who might speculate that the ill fated tram project, not unlike the vast sums of public money extracted in the construction of the Scottish Parliament or the new Forth Bridge, was a deliberate attempt to saddle the Council with considerable debt, thus weakening the wellbeing of the Capital and leaving the City open to predatory asset stripping.

In favouring short sighted, unsustainable and discredited economic considerations above the long term wellbeing of the City and her Citizens this burden of debt is evidently perverting the integrity of public servants, as laid out in The Seven Principles of Public Life by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (The Nolan Report) which states in Principle 1 that:

“Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest”.

Quite how the disposal of among the most significant public property in the City to private, commercial interests can be deemed to be acting “solely in terms of the public interest” is highly contentious. Indeed, for the old Royal High School to be included on the inauspicious Edinburgh 12 list, regardless of the quality of design for the proposed hotel, reveals just how apparently craven and desperate the Council have become.

Though Duddingston House Properties claim to have won a supposedly “open” competition in 2010 which granted a conditional ground lease for 125 years there appears to be no evidence online of such a competition. Indeed for many the first the general public knew of the proposals for the Royal High School came with the submission of a Proposal of Application Notice by the ‘developer’ earlier this year, followed by “three days of public consultation”.

For those with any experience of such ‘developer’ led “public consultations” this process typically reveals itself to be an utterly disingenuous box ticking exercise in which the ‘development’ is effectively a ‘done deal’.

Under the circumstances, for a Council with a grain of integrity a building of such national importance as the old Royal High School would surely merit a full independent public consultation? Yet in spite of the Scottish Government recently passing the Community Empowerment Bill it would seem that no meaningful public consultations have been undertaken as to alternative uses for any of the eminent buildings included on the Edinburgh 12 list.

In spite of the controversy and public outcry the Scottish Government has thus far declined to intervene though the properties listed in the Edinburgh 12 could all be regarded worthy of national significance. However, the Scottish Government’s track record in listening to and favouring community interests is itself questionable, in spite of pronouncements invoking the Sovereignty of the People, given the presumption in favour of ‘development’ and a planning system heavily biased in favour of commercial interests where communities, unlike ‘developers’, have no rights of appeal, in spite of repeated calls from the public for radical planning reform.

Moreover, the Scottish Government is evidently more successfully lobbied and influenced by private speculative interests, as revealed for instance in the almost fantastical figures projected for house building that envisions the construction of 450,000 new houses (most likely made of ‘ticky-tack’, in spite of supposedly being of the highest standards as proclaimed by the construction industry), to be built across Scotland by 2034, fundamentally threatening priceless Greenbelt, prime agricultural land and the wellbeing of future generations condemned to a sterile concrete jungle in order to satiate the broken and unsustainable economic model of endless economic growth on a finite planet…

Though seemingly dull and marred in reams of bureaucratic obfuscation, thereby disenfranchising many citizens, the issue of planning and development could be said to have fundamentally played no small part in effecting the outcome of last year’s referendum given the controversial intervention of the Scottish Government in the Donald Trump Menie Estate affair a few years prior. Somewhat poignantly analogous with the classic Scottish film Local Hero, this well publicised debacle arguably did more to damaged the trust and reputation of ex-First Minister Alex Salmond, and by extension the independence cause, than any other incident leading up to the referendum.

In concluding, the proposed hotel plans for the old Royal High School are opposed by numerous notable groups including Historic Scotland and Edinburgh World Heritage Trust. However, going on the evidence of other recent planning decisions in which the Council has blatantly affronted local democracy as well as ignoring policy guidelines, the public can have little faith in the current process, particularly when the Council has a vested financial interest and is currently on its knees and legally bound to a private ‘developer’.

Besides the controversy hanging over the ‘golden turd’ and the proposed wallpaper limestone cladding of the new St James Centre the case of Craighouse, regarded as “possibly the highest ever level of public engagement in a planning application in Scottish history”, reveals the extent to which the Council have become deaf to overwhelming cries of objection. See: www.friendsofcraighouse.com/)

So short of some spirited action befitting this City of Enlightenment, the speculative, architectural wallpaper creep of the Nation’s beloved capital will continue apace, and the Royal High School will become just another pound of flesh to add to the catalogue of Edinburgh’s disgraces…

For those citizens of The World with faith left in the current system and with a few moments to spare, representations to the Council are permissible from all peoples, living in Edina and beyond, so Mel Gibson and the Braveheart diaspora if you’re reading…
See: Facebook link or for those not on Facebook see the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland here.

The deadline has been extended to October 13th (though comments on the Listed Building Consent of the application (15/03990/LBC) close October 6th).

If objecting you need to explicitly use the words ‘I OBJECT’. You might like to concur with Historic Scotland by quoting their cool headed, no-nonsense, jargon busting reasons for objection, but do vent your spleen too:

Adverse impact on the Hamilton building, and views to and from it.
Height, scale and massing of extensions would overwhelm the former school and diminish its architectural status.
Adverse impact on the designed landscape of Calton Hill, and on other buildings and monuments on it.
Adverse impact on the Old and New Towns of the Edinburgh World Heritage Site.

If for any reason you are unable to access the Council website, you can send an email to the case officers Euan McMeeken and Carla Parkes directly, referring to the reference numbers 15/03989/FUL and 15/03990/LBC.

Please share with others and also consider, particularly if you miss the officious Council deadline, of writing to MSPs Alex Neil and Fiona Hyslop asking them to ‘call in’ the application. In light of the considerable ongoing controversy surrounding land grabbing and speculative ‘development’ and the threat to the World Heritage Status you might also ask Ministers to undertake an independent investigation of Edinburgh Council’s Planning Department and EDI.

And finally, a petition was established to register an expression of “No Confidence in the City of Edinburgh Planning Department” in response to the Caltongate/ New Waverley decision and other subsequent contentious ‘developments’ of national importance. This petition has reached 5000+ signatures and is still live in order to canvas more support and raise greater awareness.

Add your support at 38 Degrees here.

Comments (14)

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  1. catriona grigg says:

    The plans are hideous. There’s an obvious attempt to try to share something of the style of the parliament building which has gone totally off key. They should have employed an architect! The Music School idea is far better.

  2. DaveM says:

    It’s unfortunate that the writer is conflating the debacle over the construction of the Scottish Parliament and Edinburgh’s tram farce with the New Forth Crossing – an infrastructure project which is running ahead of time and within budget.

    1. SimonB says:

      For less than a tenth of the cost of the new bridge the old bridge could have been recabled with savings that would then have appeased so much of the swingeing austerity nonsense.

      http://www.twodoctors.org/2009/11/a-new-forth-road-bridge-wrong.html

      Given that there is already a new bridge at Kincardine and that the Forth Rail Bridge is underused and good for at least another 100 years, thanks to decent quality engineering and maintenance, there was no reason for the construction of another bridge other than pandering to the current insane economic model.

      This fifth bridge over The Forth may be bucking the trend of major infrastructure projects and actually “running ahead of time and within budget”, yet in spite of the PR have we been fooled by another unnecessary and financially crippling folly? This writer thinks so.

      Whatever happened to the old Scottish temperament of FRUGALITY???

  3. bill fraser says:

    Nothing short of a disaster to allow this site as a hotel I trust that the strength of public opinion and the citizens of Edinburgh will not let this take place.

  4. Margaret McGowan says:

    I recently visited the Basque country and was very impressed by the cities of Santander and San Sebastian where they look after their older buildings. Edinburgh looks very shabby in comparison. Moreover the City of Edinburgh Council seems hell-bent on destroying the very buildings that bring visitors to the city. Ask anyone who has visited European cities (for example Warsaw, Tallin, Prague etc) and you will find that it is the OLD TOWN they visit, not the modern parts. What is also extremely worrying is that no matter how large or how vociferous the outcry from the citizens of Edinburgh, the City of Edinburgh Council ignores it and rides roughshod over their wishes.

  5. Derek says:

    I agree, Catriona. The Parliament building nestles in its hollow where once they used to make beer; the RHS is *intended* to dominate the slopes of Calton Hill, leading the eye up to our half-a-parthenon. Irrespective of the materials used to clad, the whole idea of two wings which are the same height or higher than Hamilton’s building? Horrible. CEC is putting Edinburgh’s World Heritage status at risk, thanks to this project and others.

  6. david black says:

    Great analysis Simon. The links between CEC and DHP – owners of ten years derelict, yet listed, Art Deco Odeon in Clerk Street should be fully investigated, as should the precise form of this ‘open’ competition. The truth about the so-called unavailability of sandstone for St James should also be fully investigated, by the police if necessary (despair about Sir Stephen notwithstanding) because of the mounting evidence that this was a case of inaccurate and misleading information being provided to a council committee. If you want to see weathering limestone, admire the black mould creeping up No 7 Castle Street/Princes Street corner. TIAA-CREF, 1800 Andrew Carnegie Boulevard, Charlotte NC are the folks to be held to account in that case – likewise with Hotel La Dogpoo, with its unravelling spiral of puppy’s Andrex roll, which breaches virtually every planning guideline. Not enough space to comment on Foster’s hideous Darth Vadar quartermile dystopia – though why have the listed buildings been left derelict? – the grossly over developed proposals for India buildings, etc etc. If the council has become mired in bankruptcy then it should be suspended and commissioners called in to sort out the mess of the tram-scam, the property repairs corruption, as happened in 1832-33 after Leith Docks overspend wiped them out.

  7. tartanfever says:

    Whilst I have plenty of sympathy for those campaigning against a clearly misguided planning department, the dripping rhetoric of this article is nauseating.

    If the city of Edinburgh, population @450k, can only muster a petition of 5k signatories then that hardly demonstrates a lack of ‘public faith’, it demonstrates the public don’t care. If they can’t organise a mass public demonstration against this involving 10’s of thousands at least, then that also signifies the public doesn’t care also.

    You may carry on blaming successive government’s and council’s but isn’t it time to address the woeful lack of public interest.

    1. SimonB says:

      Your suggestion that “isn’t it time to address the woeful lack of public interest” is relevant.

      However, while I don’t believe the public don’t care, an opinion which I sense you might share, contending with the construct and chicanery of money, and by extension debt, which has so masterfully perverted democracy and decency, (as invoked by the four words of the Enlightenment inscribed on the Scottish Parliament Mace (Wisdom, Justice, Compassion, Integrity)), the sham process and grinding attrition of the current system has disaffected so many, in the face of political illiteracy and the dumbing down of society, bureaucratic obfuscation, media bias etc

      The campaigns in response to Caltongate and Craighouse were considerable, and as stated in the article attracted “possibly the highest ever level of public engagement in a planning application in Scottish history”.

      Perhaps you have some suggestions to reinvigorate civic society in the face of all this?

      Apologies if you found my passions “dripping rhetoric”.

      1. tartanfever says:

        Hi Simon,

        No, unfortunately I can’t suggest a way of re-invigorating public interest, Decades of what you describe as

        ‘contending with the construct and chicanery of money, and by extension debt, which has so masterfully perverted democracy and decency’

        through our media, social and political constructs have left a largely disengaged public frankly unwilling to get off their backsides.

        What I don’t like is buildings lying empty, often because ‘historical hysteria’ takes over and these temples cannot be re-worked into modern use because of lobbying and fears of damaging our architectural history.

        My daily life is defined by our worship of such buildings lying empty as I walk my daily routes through the city. It’s very often that these buildings previously housed or were built for exactly the kind of institutions that were designed to control public life – built for elites or ruling classes or religions which have directly contributed to that ‘perverted democracy’ you describe.

        And yet, here we are trying to save them.

        I whole heartedly agree with your sentiments regarding planning regulations, corporate chicanery and shoddy public engagement – as for the buildings themselves I reserve judgement.

        1. SimonB says:

          Thanks for the friendly and thoughtful response Tartanfever!

          I find agreement in your comments regarding empty buildings. It reflects very poorly on the Council that there are many public properties in their care that have fallen into disrepair which in the instance of listed buildings suggests criminal negligence according to Historic Scotland.

          Communities should be encouraged to come forward and make proposals for alternative uses instead of the current policy of closed door commercial sell off. Going on the evidence of Caltongate, Craighouse, St James Centre, St Andrew’s Sq… and now the Royal High School the process is a stitch up and a flagrant abuse of power and contempt for so called ‘democracy’. If allowed to continue this will likely do much to damage the credibility of the SNP who are complicit in this, behaving like old craven, corrupt politicians while appearing to be progressive in championing civic sovereignty.

          In these dire, cynical times the 5000 signatures collected on the 38 Degrees petition in response to this rot keeps some hope alive and reading through the corresponding comments it is evident that there are some very impassioned feelings about what’s going on. Though 5000 is a paltry figure in order to get so much as a nod of recognition from our politicians you might know that over in Switzerland only 50,000 signatures are required in order to instigate a national referendum!

          EDI, the arms length Council body facilitating the City’s asset stripping while otherwise claiming to “care about Edinburgh and work closely with its communities to understand how our work can benefit them”, have just announced in their September bulletin that they are considering the next round of public properties to add to the existing Edinburgh 12 to be disposed of to the private sector… might we yet reach the straw that broke the asses back?

          “As soon as the land of any country has all become private property, the landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed, and demand a rent even for its natural produce. The wood of the forest, the grass of the field, and all the natural fruits of the earth, which, when land was in common, cost the labourer only the trouble of gathering them, come, even to him, to have an additional price fixed upon them. He must then pay for the licence to gather them; and must give up to the landlord a portion of what his labour either collects or produces”.
          -Adam Smith 

  8. Richard Easson says:

    There used to be an old joke years ago.
    Two councillors…..”There’s a nice old building, let’s knock it down”.

  9. Jeff says:

    This exellent article should have been published sooner!

  10. Gordie says:

    Excellent article. Glad to see the ‘Auld Reekie’ issue went your way.

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