Edinburgh’s Development Management Sub-Committee today voted to accept the advice of its own officials and refused a planning application to redevelop the old Royal High School as a luxury 147-bedroom hotel (Ref. 15/03989/FUL).
Developers Duddingston House Properties LLD and the Urbanist Group are now expected to appeal the decision.
The application has divided opinion in Edinburgh. Some 1,618 individuals commented on the proposals, of whom 278 were in support and 1,338 were against.
Broadly speaking, the arguments split between those who applaud the hotel scheme’s bold architectural additions and confident assertions of economic gain (£31.5 million per year for Edinburgh), and those who see the new accommodation platforms as desecrating an incomparable architectural treasure of international importance. Officials worded their assessment in ‘very clear and very strong’ terms of potential benefits not outweighing potential adverse impacts on the listed structures and their setting.
Scrutiny has also focused on the extent to which the building should and could remain publicly accessible. Officials pointed out that such future access is outwith their control.
These lines of debate were repeated throughout today’s seven-hour proceedings, from which we extract a few choice morsels below. You can view the entire meeting on the CEC webcast here.
Officials first ran through their Report to councillors. (Unfortunately, CEC's Planning Portal is buckling under the weight of documentation in this case, and hyperlinks to this application are either unreliable or useless at the time of writing. You can find the Report summarised in Breaking news, 15.12.15.) Next, they illustrated the Report's main points in a lengthy presentation.
Cllr Ritchie asked for clarification of the supposed £31.5 million benefit to Edinburgh (pages 21, 40 and 98 of the report). An official replied that a standard industry formula had been employed, and was a ‘robust’ estimate. No figures were available for the potential loss of tourism that might result from Edinburgh losing its world heritage status.
Sarah Boyack MSP (Lab) spoke of overdevelopment and lack of respect for the history of the building and its landscape setting. It would damage both and the tourism industry. The proposal deviated substantially from national and CEC’s own conservation policies, she said, and would harm the city’s outstanding universal value. There were many alternative and preferable uses for the building. She would favour CEC and the Scottish Government collaborating in future over other uses.
Alison Johnstone MSP (Grn) bore witness to the strength of opinion in Edinburgh and further afield against this proposal. She described it as ‘an incredibly special site which we should not tamper with in this way’. The proposal ‘obliterated’ rather than enhanced the area. Consent for the scheme would be judged in future as an act of ‘architectural and cultural vandalism’. A potential hotel charge of £25,000 per night did not represent accessibility.
Cllr Eric Milligan (Lab) highlighted a long-standing lack of realistic alternative options for the building.
New Town & Broughton Community Council
NTBCC commended the Planning Department on their report. Ian Mowat broadly agreed with its findings. NTBCC was unanimously opposed to the application (pages 108, 109). They supported new uses for the building, but felt that this scheme constituted overdevelopment. Richard Price said NTBCC’s early comments to the developer at the Pre-Application Notification stage (concerning unrespectful and detrimental development) had been ignored in the applicant’s PAC report. Instead the developer had relied on simplistic questionnaires which gave a ‘disingenuous and misleading’ impression. The developer’s alleged difficulty in engaging the NTBCC was inexplicable and not matched by any other organisation. Revised proposals were also unanimously objected to. NTBCC did not accept that there were no alternative proposals (Royal High School Preservation Trust/St Mary’s Music School). They strongly endorsed planners’ recommendation to reject the proposal.
Edinburgh World Heritage
Edinburgh World Heritage’s director Adam Wilkinson said officials were right to focus on planning not economic issues. The design would create a ‘blight where there is now beauty’. A hotel of that scale and quality was inappropriate here, but could be situated elsewhere in the city. He spoke of damage to the topography and to views. EWH’s advice was ignored. He spoke of despoilation and confusion. He stressed the measurable economic value (£1.2 billion–£1.6 billion) of preserving Edinburgh’s built heritage, and described as ‘patently absurd’ the developers’ claims for their design’s aesthetic benefits. Decision to reject CEC, Historic Environment Scotland and EWH advice would send out a very negative message.
Marion Williams, chair of the CA, said she had been struck by the widespread level of concern. The old Royal High School building faced permanent and irreversible damage. Operation of the building and the building itself would change many many times during the 125-year lease. This was a high-risk venture in a volatile industry where businesses frequently fail and go into administration. She questioned the developers’ business track record and an untested business plan by the Rosewood Hotel group. This would be an exclusive hotel, not a public building serving the whole city in its historical, civic, egalitarian and educative contexts. It entailed too much risk and put too much at stake. Cllr McVey (SNP) criticised what he considered Marion Williams’s inappropriate attack on successful businessmen. She replied that the business plan was a risky financial compromise. She had consulted hotel owners who advised that the site is too sensitive to support all the facilities for a 5 or 5+ star hotel. She had professional respect for Bruce Hare (Duddingston House Properties LLD) and David Orr (Urbanist Group), and found them congenial in person.
Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland
Dr Elizabeth Graham said Calton Hill and the architecture on it represent a narrative of Scottish identity. The hotel plan ignored this narrative, detracted from it and screamed for attention on itself. ‘The narrative changes over time, but we mustn’t destroy what is good about our inheritance.’ She questioned whether a commercial use was appropriate.
Regent, Royal, Carlton Terraces and Mews Association
RRCTMA's Carol Nimmo vigorously opposed the plan, saying the proposed development was too large. Councillors should put people, heritage and culture above profit. Developers’ consultations ignored local opinion, and comprised heavily slanted questions. She spoke of a cavalier attitude to consultation and unrealistic images being used to sway opinion. Appendices at the back of the Report revealed the true nature of what she likened to ‘uninspiring lumps’ and ‘badly stacked shipping containers’. A public and cultural alternative existed to this disastrous scheme, but the developers had purposely not mentioned this in their questionnaires. Her submission drew applause from the public gallery.
Gordon Dewar (chair of Edinburgh Airport)
Dewar said he had a good understanding of the visitor economy. Edinburgh’s tourism growth would focus increasingly on India and China and a top-quality hotel was necessary for high-net-worth visitors. Rosewood was right for this market, and would also boost business tourism. He acknowledged having no architectural expertise, but saw the old Royhal High School as a wasted asset in an area of the city which some people actively avoided. This was an an acceptable compromise on adapting the building. A sustainable commercial operation would remove a drain on public resources and help preserve the building.
Graham Birse (Edinburgh Business Forum)
Birse – of the Edinburgh Institute of Leadership at Edinburgh Napier University – represented the Edinburgh Business Forum. He said the proposal would boost Edinburgh's international reputation/status. There is a shortage of 5-star hotel space in the city, and consequent slippage as a conference destination. Economic benefits would include £13 million in tax revenue. It would provide careers for young people: 260 full-time jobs. Rosewood are excellent employers. Sustainable economic use: CEC’s 2008 commitment has been followed by difficult and expensive maintenance of the Hamilton building. CEC considers a hotel to be best option, and has a contract with Duddingston House Properties. Bruce Hare later clarified that this could run until 2022 'to purify the missives’.
Cllr Bagshaw (Grn) asked about high-net-worth visitors, questioned long-term sustainability and how long-haul travel matched CEC’s green aspirations. Dewar replied that one bottle of £10,000 whisky was sold at the airport every week. Top-end products and experiences could be sold to a unique kind of consumer. The airline industry was committed to limiting its carbon footprint. He saw no reason to doubt economic sustainability of airline based travel. Luxury hotels had been successful since the 1930s, said Birse. Refusing consent would put off future investors.
Cllr Balfour (Con) questioned whether tourists came to Edinburgh solely because of its world heritage status. Dewar said it was not the only attraction.
Duddingston House Properties
Bruce Hare reviewed the planning history so far, and the stunning location of the old Royal High School. He said some pre-application consultees had approached the issues with closed minds, and said feedback from the public had been very helpful. CEC’s Urban Design and Review Panel had welcomed revised plans for the hotel. EWH and NTBCC had either not attended all the meetings, or declined invitations to discuss the plans. He summarised the favourable responses to a questionnaire. A project of national significance is ready to begin. Cllr Bagshaw wondered about the disparity between questionnaires and written objections. Hare said survey work was exemplary and the results were clear-cut. Happy people don’t write letters of support. Cllrs Bagshaw and Perry asked whether, if there were more time, the developers could come up with a scheme that officials could recommend? Hare said that further improvement was possible, but complete consensus with Planning might not be. Cllr Mowat (Con) wondered why Hare and colleagues had been surprised by officials’ long-standing and well-known doubts about an excessive quantum of development. Hare said he thought such doubts about massing had been adequately addressed.
Radhar Arora, president, described his company’s commercial profile and prime locations worldwide. This hotel would generate substantial economic benefit across Edinburgh and Scotland, and remove a barrier to growth. If successful in this application, Rosewood would legally commit to running the hotel here for 30 years. ‘Hotel will be a platform for all that’s best in Scotland’ and would welcome locals onto the premises, here as at other Rosewood hotels. Rosewood recognises, respects and upholds the worth of historic and iconic buildings. Responding to Cllr Lewis’s enquiry about delivering sufficient level of opulence, Arora said Rosewood was passionate and successful in sensitively bringing heritage buildings into the 21st century. He confimed that 147 bedrooms was economically viable.
Gareth Hoskins Architects
Gareth Hoskins, principal, mentioned the firm’s experience in dealing with sensitive sites and the consultation process. They had responded to seven new guidelines after the first set of plans, and fundamentally changed their designs to step away from the Hamilton Building. Consultation process had been enjoyable and effective. Sustainable use, materials, and appearance. Scheme would improve the site according to formal criteria. This was considered, confident and reinvgorating proposal. Cllr Perry queried Hoskins’s account of ICOMOS critical responses to views. In answer to Cllr Dixon (SNP), Hoskins said wider setting of the development and views to it had always been key. Great attention to quality, detail and craftsmanship of materials. Cllr Keil (Lab) asked whether new structures would deserve A-listing in the future to match the buildings they replaced. Hoskins was confident about their merits and they would be built to last.
Gary Mappin welcomed fair CEC Report and recognition of the scheme’s merits. Significant benefits outweigh disadvantages and so should permit consent. Urged councillors to be forward-looking and progressive.
Karen Doran said she had received no letters from constituents in favour of the proposal. She was in no doubt that members of the public were opposed to it. She asked those on the sub-committee to reject it. If councillors voted to consent the scheme, it would have a detrimental effect on the reputation of the Council.
Planning Convener Cllr Perry acknowledged current plans were an improvement on previous ones. He advised councillors to focus on comparing: (1) the effect on the setting of the building; and (2) the – in his view – equally valid economic benefits.
Cllr Howat (SNP) emphasised local and national economic benefits. This is a special place and special opportunity. Widening a service entry would be of neglible significance. Connecting corridors are necessary and not a good reason to reject. A smaller building would detract from the Hamilton building. ‘Inca terraces’ are neither complementary nor contradictory – it’s a matter of taste. ‘I don’t want to live in a museum space that restricts development’. Loss of views is not as bad as some people say. This proposal is an improvement on the listed buildings it would replace. Doing nothing is not an option. Civic duty and national pride demand progressing with the plan.
Cllr Balfour (Con) suggested an holistic approach, and thought rejection would send a negative message to developers worldwide. We are not a museum but must develop and grow jobs and the economy.
Cllr Mowat (Con) said Hamiton building is hugely important. Monumental quality. Scale of the development is too great. Problems with quantum of development well-known since 2008. Economic benefits have been exaggerated and do not outweigh damage to outstanding universal value.
Cllr Milligan (Lab) said controversy is inevitable. We must embrace change. Previous potential users of the building have all rejected it. Chance to make a difference.
Cllr Ritchie (SNP) said Report rightly values architecture over interests of the super-rich. Nonsense to suggest it would be publicly accessible. Edinburgh will not forgive proposed desecration.
Cllr Blacklock (Lab) said proposal was an opportunity to protect and revive.
Cllr McVey (SNP) said his was a balanced decision. Impact of setting’s urbanisation and scale, setting are too large. He agreed with officers’ reasons 2,4, 9 and 10.
Cllr Keil (Lab) said we should not favour short-term gain over long-term loss. Development too large.
Cllr Robson (Lab) was unpersuaded by Cllr Milligan. He likes the design but considers it too large.
Cllr Bagshaw (Grn) thinks the design is crass, insensitive and environmental vandalism.
Cllr Child (Lab) thought proposed design was great but in wrong place. Would spoil views to the building. Granting would undermine the city’s planning system.
Cllr Howat (SNP) wondered whether Cllr Ritchie had already made up his mind about his decision before the meeting, and so opened CEC to legal challenge. Cllr Perry said that was a matter for Standards and Cllr Ritchie.
Cllr Perry thinks a hotel is a good idea for the site, and likes the design proposed. But this would damage the building’s outstanding universal value and could imperil world heritage status. On that basis, he moved the officers’ recommendations, and was seconded by Cllr Mowat. She said, ‘If you have a scintilla of doubt, you must vote against it.’
Cllr McVey moved to accept only Planning officers’ points 2, 4, 9 and 10, and was seconded by Cllr Blacklock (Lab). This was defeated by seven votes to one.
Cllr Howat moved to reject all the Planning officers’ arguments and grant permission. This was defeated by nine votes to six.
Application was refused. Listed building consent was refused immediately afterwards.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AND WHEN?
Nobody really knows. A Council spokesperson told us, ‘There isn’t a formal process with regards to what happens next to the Old Royal High. The music school application would proceed in parallel to any further consideration of the hotel application through call-in or appeal. We cannot really speculate as to how the two timescales might interact as there are many unknowns. If a public inquiry or hearing is arranged for the hotel, it would require several months' notice following the appeal or call-in decision’.
The final vote was 8:7. Cllr Perry's miscount was corrected by Cllr Balfour.
[As far as we're aware, the comment thread below includes all the relevant e-mail, Twitter and Facebook messages we've received on the subject apart from re-Tweets. It will be regularly updated.]
Fiona Allen This is potentially very good news. Provided the appeal doesn't work. HOWEVER, just in case, I do not believe any hotel will offer 260 full-time jobs; if there are that many, they will mostly be seasonal/part-time and probably minimum wage.
Broughton Spurtle We know nothing at all about it. But Rosewood president stressed company's excellent training, respectable rate of pay, and career prospects from entry level to the top. (He started as a waiter.) Check out the webcast and let us know what you think!
Nicole Roberts Dominic Berry Isn't the music school 'plan' merely a pipe-dream though? Someone just came up with that idea with no backing or plans of how it could work. At least the hotel had backers and could get off the ground.
Nicole Roberts Fiona Allen Did you want them to specify every single job they could possibly have when, they themselves, won't really know for sure at the moment. I'm pretty willing to a hotel would hire a LOT more people than a music school.
p.s. were you making a pun with trumpeting? ;P
Dominic Berry Nicole Roberts I don't know why you think the music school has no backing or plans. The project is fully funded and the plans are here:
Fiona Allen Nicole - not EVERY job, no, just a sensible indication And, yes.
Philomena Montgomery Davies The music school plan will contravene council policy on some of the same points as the hotel, crucially the wanton destruction of the Victorian gymnasium. The council decreed that this building must be preserved but the school plan cannot happen without its demolition. Yet somehow the city's heritage guardians like the Cockburn Association and Edinburgh World Heritage seem all for it! The fact that the frontman for the private music school is WG Muir, the man currently destroying Craighouse estate, tells you all you need to know.
Broughton Spurtle Fiona Allen Forgot to mention that Rosewood president yesterday said that 'his' hotels had a staff to customer ratio of 2:1. So, with 147 bedrooms at full occupancy, would expect at least 294 staff.
Nicole Roberts Dominic Berry Ah!! I didn't realise that at all!! How long's that been on the table for?? x
Dominic Berry Thanks for this very good account, Spurtle. I couldn't bear to watch the webcast: it was too depressing. But a fantastic outcome.
Alex Norton RESULT! xxx
Pamela Dobbie Brilliant
Nikki MacLeod Awesooooome
Press Release from Deidre Brock MP
Thursday December 17, 2015
Brock welcomes Royal High decision
Commenting on today’s decision by the City of Edinburgh Council to refuse the planning application for a luxury hotel in the former Royal High School building, Edinburgh North and Leith MP Deidre Brock said:-
‘This was a passionate debate and everyone involved wants what’s best for Edinburgh, but I believe the right decision was made. I’ve no objection to a new hotel in the city, but this is simply not the right place for it.
‘Now the hotel proposal has been refused, it’d be good to see a swift decision taken on a more suitable use for this iconic building. Everyone in Edinburgh is fed up with the building lying dormant - we can’t wait another 50 years for a decision to be made.
‘There are alternative proposals for a music school and concert hall already on the table. The exciting plans from the Royal High School Preservation Trust would protect the heritage of Thomas Hamilton’s building while breathing new life into this corner of the capital. I hope these plans can be explored without delay.’
Jamie Szymkowiak Retweeted Broughton Spurtle
@theSpurtle Brill decision. But now of course there will be an appeal.
Valerie Retweeted Broughton Spurtle
thank you, @theSpurtle for your long time and excellent coverage of this:
Mike Wade Retweeted Broughton Spurtle
Top marks to the Spurtle for its coverage. (Also liked the story abt Crombie's shop assistant who was a top artist)
Phew RT @theSpurtle: Old Royal High School – hotel application refused.
Marie de Guise Retweeted Broughton Spurtle
Lynn Henni Retweeted Broughton Spurtle
Outbreak of good sense within Edinburgh Planning Cttee! @NTBCC
@theSpurtle thanks for breaking it down - v interesting and helpful!
@theSpurtle I see Gareth Hoskins thinks his plans are sensitive!!
And that is great news on the #Edinburgh #RoyalHighSchool #OldRoyalHigh http://www.broughtonspurtle.org.uk/news/no-hotel-old-royal-high … @theSpurtle
The Edinburgh public will remain in the dark about my future until the details of my potential lease to DHP are published.
@oldRoyalHigh Facts given before committee today. Quite simple: 125 year lease conditional on planning. Seven years to achieve that
. Philomena Montgomery Davies The hotel threat has not gone away. I read this morning that they have another seven years to get planning permission for the hotel. Remember that these people are only doing what the council hired them to do. They were chosen by the council to deliver plans for a luxury hotel at the school so the council is in effect their client. They'll be back and they were only defeated by a single vote this time. Next time we might not be so lucky.
Reply to Philomena Montgomery Davies: Final vote against was 9 votes to 6.
Huge thanks to @theSpurtle for digging the deepest, covering the debate in such depth and for great turns of phrase.
@theSpurtle Thanks for such a full and detailed account of the debate. Nicely balanced reporting on such an emotive issue
@theSpurtle Gutted. That is one of my favourite architectural spots on the planet, for me the proposed build added to that. Hey ho.
William Gray Muir, Chairman of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, said in a press release: ‘We were impressed by the seriousness of the debate and the important questions which were aired. The Council’s decision today makes it possible for us to pursue our proposals to return the former Royal High School building to its rightful position at the cultural heart of Edinburgh with public performance spaces and a state-of-the-art new home for St Mary’s Music School. The Royal High School is an iconic building and a unique location and we are delighted that the Council has acknowledged its important place in Edinburgh’s illustrious heritage.’
Dr Kenneth Taylor, Headteacher of St Mary’s Music School, said in a press release: ‘The school is conscious that the Royal High School Preservation Trust’s proposal to move St Mary’s Music School to the former Royal High School building would succeed only if the local authority opted to reject planning approval for an alternative commercial proposal for the site. We are pleased that councillors have taken that decision today. We are confident that the RHSPT’s proposal provides a far closer match with the architectural and cultural significance of the unique site and with the backing of bodies like Edinburgh World Heritage, we are hopeful that it will secure the go-ahead from councillors as quickly as possible.’
City of Edinburgh Council Planning Convener Cllr Ian Perry said in a press release: ‘Our job is to make sure that any development in Edinburgh strikes a balance between protecting the city’s heritage and developing its economy.
‘Committee members have today agreed with planning officers’ recommendations that this application fails to do this, and have therefore refused to grant it.
‘This was a very difficult decision, and not one we took any pleasure in taking, but it came down to the scale of the development, which was ultimately too great.’