A battle over one of Edinburgh’s most famous neoclassical buildings, the Old Royal High School, has intensified after a hotel consortium stepped up its bid to build a luxury hotel on the site.
The consortium has filed an appeal after councillors unanimously rejected its revised plans to build a smaller “six star” hotel around the A-listed neoclassical building for about £75m.
Urbanist Hotels, and Duddingston House Properties, had previously sought permission to build a larger hotel based on two multi-storey wings with stepped facades, but that too had been rejected, in 2015.
In a fresh twist to the long-running saga, the Scottish government confirmed on Wednesday that its planning officials could take the unusual step of agreeing to study both projects in tandem in a public planning inquiry.
A spokeswoman said all four appeals by the developers, which included two appeals over the council’s refusal to give listed buildings consent, would be “conjoined”. She added: “Each of the four appeals will be decided on their own merits.”
The appeal over the site of the hotel, which opened in 1829, has reopened a simmering feud between the consortium and the backers of a rival £35m proposal for the site – supported by influential conservation campaigners – which aims to create a new home for one of Scotland’s best known music schools, St Mary’s.
William Gray Muir, chair of the Royal High School Preservation Trust, and also a property developer, said a planning inquiry with such a broad remit would “end up in total confusion”. He added: “It is absolutely clear that both applications substantially fail the statutory test for what is acceptable for a protected building.”
The hotel consortium is preparing to mount an aggressive defence of its plans, including attacks on the safety of the music school plans to excavate a new floor in the bedrock underneath the building. Muir said that criticism was “total nonsense”.
The developers have retained one of Scotland’s most influential planning experts, Ann Faulds, at one time the Scottish government’s chief planner. Fauld, later at a law firm, advised Donald Trump on his successful bid to build a golf resort in Aberdeenshire, despite that site having legally protected SSSI status and the scheme breaching the local development plan. Experts believe that the applied classification, of site of special scientific interest, will be revoked next month because the golf links development has “ruined” the site.
The dispute over the Old Royal High, which is adjacent to the Scottish government’s headquarters, on Calton Hill, at the edge of Edinburgh’s Georgian New Town, is expected to become a defining battle between architectural conservationists and developers.
The developers’ plans for the A-listed building include large public areas, including bars and restaurants, and exhibition spaces which would promote Scots artists, they said. The hotel rooms are expected to be priced at a minimum of about £350 a night.
David Orr, of Urbanist Hotels, said the firm was “committed to reviving a building which has failed to have a credible and sustainable use for nearly 50 years”.
Orr added: “Our proposals guarantee the future of Hamilton’s masterpiece, both architecturally and financially, and we feel that the appeals process will allow many of the complex technical issues raised with both previous planning applications to be thoroughly presented and cross-examined.”
Opponents believe Edinburgh’s protected status as a UN world heritage site would be under threat as the building, which was designed by Thomas Hamilton, and its place in the neoclassical landscape surrounding Calton Hill, are an essential part of the city’s UN listing.
Historic Environment Scotland, the government agency, confirmed it had formally objected to both hotel plans and that it would take part in a planning inquiry.
Other objectors include Edinburgh World Heritage (EWHT), the body which overseas the world heritage site, the architectural and urban planning campaign group Cockburn Association, the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, and local community councils.
Adam Wilkinson, director of EWHT, said: “On Calton Hill we are looking at this remarkable range of development which starts off at Waterloo Place and runs like a belt around the whole hill. It is a ring of neoclassical buildings of the highest quality in a landscape setting, with the Old Royal High at its centre. Plonking two very large hotel wings on either side of a classic building in a classical landscape setting removes a lot of meaning from the site.”
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