Jilly MacLeod summarises an excellent evening held in Edinburgh’s Central Hall on Tuesday 14th March 2017
The Central Hall buzzed with excitement on Tuesday evening as just shy of 300 people streamed into its splendid interior to hear the AHSS’s presentation on the proposed hotel redevelopment of Thomas Hamilton’s Royal High School on Regent Road. After a brief introduction by Carol Nimmo, Chair of the Regent, Royal, Carlton Terraces and Mews Association, in which she read out a message of support from SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the first speaker – Fred Mackintosh, Faculty of Advocates – gave a recent history of the site and explained how we ended up with three proposals in the planning pipeline and who makes the final decisions. He concluded with the probing question: ‘What does it say about our country if we’re prepared to trash the Royal High School for a five-star hotel?’
Following on was an enlightening talk by Adam Wilkinson of Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, who put Hamilton’s building into historical context, describing how a rediscovery of ancient Greece in the late eighteenth century had given rise to a new architectural style – the Greek Revival – which unlike the Neo-Classical, based on the buildings of ancient Rome and redolent of empire, spoke instead of the people and democracy. This was a fitting style for a city steeped in Enlightenment thinking and seeking to express Scottish ideas through the built environment. Ambitious to show equal rank with cities of the ancient world, the Royal High School was the embodiment of Edinburgh’s concept of itself and as such is ‘one of the most important Greek Revival buildings in the world’.
Cliff Hague, Chair of the Cockburn Association, then gave an overview of the economic impact of the new development proposed by DHP (Duddingston House Properties), his PowerPoint presentation enlivened with emoticons of smiling and sad faces and a cartoon of an old hag with a crystal ball. His argument was that any economic forecast, such as DHP’s claim that their new hotel would provide £25 million per annum towards Edinburgh’s GDP over a seven-year period, were simply predictions rather than fact, and the assumptions and calculations upon which they were based were ‘no more sophisticated than a crystal ball’. Adverse conditions could easily change the context of the development, the predictions could be proved wrong, and we might end up with a budget hotel rather than a luxury one!
Alastair Disley, Convenor of the AHSS Forth & Borders Cases Panel, followed by looking at the planning application, outlining the extent of the proposed demolitions while highlighting common themes of the existing site – natural materials, symmetry, picturesque compositions, classical buildings given room to breath – elements sadly lacking in the new proposals. He then took us on a visual tour using before-and-after images from DHP’s planning application, eliciting gasps from the audience as he switched from one image to another and heady views of Arthur’s Seat were rudely interrupted by soaring barrack-like buildings that rose up from the ground like ‘a submarine surfacing’.
The final speaker of the evening was Elizabeth Graham, a long-term member of the AHSS Cases Panel, who provided practical advice on how to put in an objection to the proposed hotel development, either on the spot using the blank letters and guidance sheets provided on each and every chair or later online. In rounding up the evening, Carol Nimmo stressed that just because it has already received planning permission, it was wrong to assume the St Mary’s Music School proposal ‘has it in the bag’; it was now more important than ever to submit an objection. She finished with the heart-felt plea to ‘ask your granny, your children, your neighbours, even your postman, to object!’ and we sincerely hope you do!
Find out how to object here