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Harper Macleod helps HES to success in inquiry over future of Edinburgh landmark

Harper Macleod Partner Jennifer Jack was part of the team which represented Historic Environment Scotland in the public inquiry which upheld the refusal of planning applications to turn Edinburgh's former Royal High School into a hotel.

Scottish Ministers have today (27 October) issued their decisions on the four planning and listed building consent appeals in relation to the proposed redevelopment.

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The former Royal High School is a category A listed building of international importance. It is prominently sited on the southern slope of Calton Hill, which is included in the national Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes. The site is within the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site, and the New Town Conservation Area.

Plans for two separate schemes for the redevelopment of the former school as a luxury hotel were submitted by Duddingston House Properties and Urbanist Hotels to the City of Edinburgh Council. Each of the proposed developments would have involved internal and external alterations to the principal former Royal High School building and pavilions (referred to as the Hamilton building, after its architect Thomas Hamilton), the addition of two large extensions and the demolition of ancillary buildings.

The Council refused the applications and developers appealed. The Scottish Ministers directed that they would determine the appeals because they raised issues of national importance in terms of potential impacts on the historic environment, including the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site, and in relation to potential economic and tourism benefits. The appeals were considered by means of public inquiry and hearing sessions, which took place between 18 September and 23 October 2018.

Protection of Edinburgh's historic environment

Jennifer Jack of Harper Macleod LLP and Marcus McKay of Ampersand Advocates represented Historic Environment Scotland throughout the Inquiry process. Historic Environment Scotland, a statutory consultee in the planning process, opposed the proposals for development because it did not consider it possible to deliver a hotel of the scale proposed in terms of either scheme on this site without unacceptable harm to the historic environment.

The main issues in the appeals were:

  • impacts of the proposals on the listed building, the conservation area, the World Heritage Site and on other heritage assets;
  • townscape and visual impacts;
  • impact on residential amenity;
  • impacts on tourism and the economy; and
  • whether any other material considerations point towards approval or refusal of planning permission.

Scottish Ministers agreed with the evidence of Historic Environment Scotland that the site of the Royal High School is located at one of the most visible and marked juxtapositions between the Old and the New Town, at the junction of the two Conservation Areas, that the former Royal High School is a key building within the World Heritage Site and is one of the finest public and commercial monuments of the neo-classical revival in Europe.

Ministers also agreed with Historic Environment Scotland that the proposed development would result in considerable damage to the setting of one of the most important neo-classical buildings in the city, removing its current prominence and domination of its carefully conceived and planned site, reducing it to a subordinate structure set between the new hotel wings which would become dominant features of Calton Hill’s southern slope.

Scottish Ministers considered that the proposed development would cause harm to the qualities which justified the inscription of the World Heritage Site and was contrary to various policies within the Edinburgh Local Development Plan.

Having considered the recommendations within the report of the two Reporters appointed to hear the evidence presented to them, Scottish Ministers have dismissed the appeals and refused permission for the development that had been proposed.

What next for the Royal High School?

This was a high-profile and hard-fought battle over the future of this building and its place in Edinburgh's historic environment. Another proposal for redevelopment, as a music school, has already been granted planning permission but cannot be developed at present due to contractual constraints, so what the future holds for Edinburgh's former Royal High School is yet unknown.

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