Controversial plan to turn former Royal High School into a hotel rejected by Edinburgh councillors

Written by Jenni Davidson on 1 September 2017 in News

Planners said the hotel design would damage “the unique views of this highly visible and highly sensitive site”

Royal High School - Image credit: Tom Parnell via Flickr

A controversial plan to turn the former Royal High School into a luxury hotel has been unanimously rejected by councillors in Edinburgh.

The A-listed building on the side of Calton Hill, which was once mooted as a possible location for a Scottish parliament, has lain empty for nearly fifty years.

Developers Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Group propose turning the historic building, designed by Thomas Hamilton, into a five star hotel complex, but plans have been opposed by conservation groups including Edinburgh World Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland.

This was a second attempt by the developers to gain planning permission, after earlier plans for the site were rejected.

Unveiling the revised plans in November, chair of Urbanist Hotels David Orr said: “The design combines the sensitive, fully-funded restoration of an architectural masterpiece, currently at risk, with the creation of a world-class place for people from around the globe to experience the best of Scotland.”

He told the committee the developer had taken account of previous criticism and scaled back the design to take account of the sensitive nature of the site.

However, council planners recommended refusing permission for the development, saying it would damage “the unique views of this highly visible and highly sensitive site”.

They commented: “The former Royal High School is an architectural masterpiece and one of the most significant buildings in Scotland.

“The proposed wings would have a significant adverse impact on the composition, integrity and special character of the listed building.

“The [size] of development is excessive and the design does not achieve the world class architectural response required of this site.

“The resulting harm caused by the proposed extensions significantly outweighs the economic benefit and benefit of bringing the building back into long-term use.”

The decision was welcomed by the the Royal High School Preservation Trust.

William Gray Muir, chair of the trust, said: “We are very pleased to note the unanimous rejection of this application, embracing Scotland’s full political spectrum.

“It is difficult to disagree with the committee convener’s description of the proposal as “universally reviled”. 

“Not one of the many civic representatives who spoke today had received a single comment in favour of this scheme.”

An alternative proposal exists to turn the Hamilton Building back into a school.

Dr Kenneth Taylor, headteacher at St Mary’s Music School, which is keen to take over the site, said: “The school has always been 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 delighted that councillors have taken that decision today.

“RHSPT’s proposal, which has already been granted planning approval, provides a far closer match with the architectural and cultural significance of the unique site.”

He continued: “Our sincere hope now is that a way can be found that allows the plans for a hotel development to be put to rest quickly so that the next chapter for the site as a seat of education and performance is not delayed.

“The weight of public opinion has fallen in favour of our plans in large part because everyone associated with the project has worked hard to demonstrate their excellence beyond doubt.

“There seems little advantage to anyone in repeating the same arguments through a protracted appeal process. Let us move on with making our vision a reality.”

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