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Friday18 August 2017

Architects hit back in Edinburgh Unesco row

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Anger as director-general calls for ongoing developments to be halted

Scottish architects have hit back at Unesco after its director-general, Koïchiro Matsuura, called for a halt to Edinburgh’s major developments while an investigation into the city’s world heritage status is carried out.

Matsuura last week warned that schemes such the £300 million Caltongate project masterplanned by Allan Murray and the £200 million Haymarket project by Richard Murphy could damage Edinburgh’s skyline, and should be put on hold while the organisation carries out a probe into whether the city should be placed on its “at risk” list of endangered sites. Unesco’s findings are due to be published next spring.

Both Caltongate and Haymarket include schemes by a number of respected firms, and architects have reacted with incredulity and anger to Matsuura’s comments, insisting that they had complied with national policy and due process — a claim backed this week by Historic Scotland.

Some contacted by BD gave unprintable responses when asked their opinion of Unesco’s position.

Visiting the city last week, Matsuura told the Scotsman newspaper: “Edinburgh’s world heritage site is very important, and it is crucial that its outstanding features are preserved and protected.

“I am a bit concerned about the Caltongate development… modern high rises should not be built in historic city centres or in areas where they would have a significant impact. Nothing should be decided on these schemes until our inspectors have visited and reported back.”

But Murphy described Unesco as a “conservation mafia” and slammed Matsuura’s view of Caltongate. “I suspect that this whole Unesco relationship is a cosy little club,” he said. “Some guy turns up who’s never been to Edinburgh before and the first thing he says is he’s worried about Caltongate, that it breaks the skyline. Well, that’s the one thing that Caltongate doesn’t do.”

David Page, partner at Page & Park, which is working on the Caltongate scheme, also defended the project, saying developer Mountgrange had taken “a lot of care”.

“[The scheme] is below the level of the adjacent high street, it nestles into the site,” he said.

“The planners were incredibly rigorous about the height profile.”

The scheme, which won planning permission in February, includes offices, a hotel, shops, artist studios, homes and a public square. Jim MacDonald, deputy chief inspector of Historic Scotland, which was consulted about the proposed demolition of listed buildings in the Caltongate scheme, confirmed: “We had no objections to what was put in front of us.”

But the project must now be approved by the Scottish government before work can start on site, and campaign group Save Our Old Town called on ministers to heed Unesco’s warning. “We have serious reservations that [the project] will undermine the world heritage status,” spokeswoman Julie Logan said. “I hope Scottish ministers will realise the issues we’ve raised are really serious.”

In a further twist, the EU is considering launching its own Caltongate investigation following allegations that competition laws were broken when the council sold a parcel of land to Mountgrange without offering it on the open market.

Read Richard Murphy’s full interview in next week’s Solutions

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Readers' comments (6)

  • There are major concerns about the entire planning process for Caltongate - not really to do with height but to do with bulk and overall suitability of this large commercial development amongst other things. Many feel that the democratic process and community consultation was a farce stage managed by Mountgrange. Legitimate objections were ignored. The City of Edinburgh Council is not considered able to deal properly with applications of this magnitude. It has not the staff or councillors with a great deal of idea. Developers have almost a free hand to do as they wish it seems to many. Not only will Caltongate see a huge development of what many regard as bland and unsuitable clone town architecture by hardly international names, it spills out of the original bus garage site as Mountgrange, the developer, demanded more land so the council has sold a listed building, the Canongate School, for demolition, and other council property including on the Royal Mile. None of this was offered to any other bidder and was not identified as redundant land. The listed Sailor's Ark (a former hostel) and stone council tenements in an Outstanding Conservation Area will (ironic really) be gutted and made into the facade of the five star Sofitel Hotel. Terrible conservation. The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust objected throughout to the plans – Mountgrange and the council refused to listen, yet the council and Historic Scotland are signatories to the WHS Management Plan. Indeed, the Planning Convenor (who pushed through the plans) is on the Board of Directors of EWHT. Under international agreements, a development of this scale should have been referred to UNESCO early in the planning process – somehow this seems to have been overlooked in the claimed rigour of the planning process! Not the only planning oversight by any means. Historic Scotland appears to informed observers scared to be seen to be standing in the way of development or face the wrath of government cuts. Its role is worrying. It no longer seems to be keen to protect the wider heritage beyond Grade A listed buildings. Sir Terry Farrell, Edinburgh Design Champion had some interesting things to say on Scottish BBC Radio yesterday about the whole development process in Edinburgh, claiming it was developer driven and there was no real masterplanning suitable for a WHS. Murphy is talking through his rear - Mr Matsuura's visit has been totally misreported in the overheated Scottish press, and I doubt Murphy actually spoke to him. Mr Matsuura was not on a visit to inspect any development. It's not his role. I would suggest that some research is carried out by Murphy before he spouts again so rudely and ignorantly about a high ranking international visitor to the City: about UNESCO, about World Heritage Status. Possibly he could call ICOMOS-UK for a chat before mouthing off further? Its VP is Edinburgh architect James Simpson OBE. However, Historic Scotland has asked UNESCO to visit, as is protocol, (Bath will also be visited) and UNESCO International Committee at the World Heritage Conference last month discussed the state of conservation report and agreed to visit. The St James’ (WHS) and Leith Docks (buffer zone) developments are on the agenda as well as Caltongate. UNESCO has in the past expressed concerns regarding the rate and suitability of new development in the WHS. The Murphy Haymarket Tower, hugely contentious commercial tall development in the WHS buffer zone, will certainly alter the historic skyline and may be deemed to set a bad precedent. However, it has so far not been identified by UNESCO as forming part of its inspection as it has only just (yesterday) received final council planning consent, and then has to be referred to Ministers Clearly, there is a huge anti-heritage lobby in Edinburgh at the moment, as of course the restrictions that so many listed buildings and conservation areas bring means the snouts in the trough of making development cash isn’t a total free for all. Many critics feel is what is happening is not high quality development suited to a WHS – much built and in the planning stage by Caltongate masterplanner Allan Murray (see Magnus Linklater in the Times recently on that subject). The UK has signed the 1972 UNESCO Convention. UNESCO World Heritage Centre is not some cosy little club, it is part of an international organisation, one which exists to try to protect for all time, for all the peoples of the world, places of outstanding cultural value to mankind, by inscribing them on the World Heritage list. The UK government identifies and puts forward places for inscription. It additionally signs agreements that it will protect those sites. That does not of course mean that living cities cannot develop, but that any development should be carefully considered, retain the outstanding universal values, and be of the highest quality. Caltongate should be called-in and a public inquiry should be held. It should be halted until UNESCO’s international team of experts’ visit. To continue with the demolitions and constructions until UNESCO has made its decision regarding the suitability of these developments for a WHS, in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, would be an act of such arrogance and folly that it beggars belief. For more details read www.eh8.org.uk and the linked blog: http://www.independentrepublicofthecanongate.blogspot.com/

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  • Blind against dumb...Conservation mafia against architects/developers mafia...we know better how the city should look like, do we...?!

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  • The caltongate scheme demonstrates what rubbish you get when developers are invited to draft 'masterplans' rather than it emerging from agreed Statutory policies in consultation with communities and impartial experts in planning (and conservation when in a sensitive area like the Old Town). If the council had been more up front and open about the disposal of land and put together a development brief for the site before marketing it (the usual practice and that which was done for the former council offices at Advocates Close) I doubt we would be looking at such an inappropriate development now. Opportunities to rectify the significant move away from National Policy (reuse or adaptation of sound listed and unlisted buildings to complement sustainable modern buildings over the existing gap site) were ignored by former Planning Convenor Trevor Davis who was dismissive of professionals views and rude and agressive to community members opposed to the masterplan. Terry Farrell is right to critisise the lack of resources and competance of CEC who cannot produce a competant and consistant planning strategy for the whole city. Unfortunately the lessons of Caltongate have not been learned as the City Development Department are continuing to allow private developers to employ architects to draft masterplans for council owned sites.....watch out for West Port....where Allan Murray is busy drafting yet another 'masterplan' for Argyll House which includes council land and buildings to be flogged off on King Stables Road!

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  • Richard Murphy should read this from Joanna Blythman in the Sunday Herald today and consider that it says what many feel about his Haymarket Tower:- http://www.sundayherald.com/oped/opinion/display.var.2436904.0.nothing_less_than_vandalism.php

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  • Quote: "Then there's the scandal of Caltongate, where two listed buildings on the historic Royal Mile are to be demolished to make way for a five-star hotel and conference centre - as if Edinburgh needs another. But the most monstrously inappropriate scheme yet given approval is the 17-storey (yes, that's right, 17-storey!) hotel and office development at Haymarket. This has been sold by its promoters as "a gateway of blade-like sharpness in the form of a tower" that will "act as a beacon at night" and function as "a gateway building marking the entry into the World Heritage Site from the west". What preposterous and fanciful nonsense. I happen to agree, on the whole, with Leon Krier, guru of the New Urbanism school of architecture, who said that "the most beautiful and pleasant cities which survive in the world today have all been conceived with buildings of between two and five floors". Even those who go for all that "street in the sky" rhetoric spouted by ideologues of modernism ought to admit that Edinburgh is not Manhattan. However bored architects may be with working in the confines of a conservation-minded city, a philistine should see that 17 storeys are brazenly out of scale among Edinburgh's traditionally low-rise buildings. It's hard to see Haymarket's proposed tower as anything other than a grotesquely super-sized, overbearing monument to architectural arrogance and civic stupidity. Worse, I interpret it as a declaration that it is now open season on Edinburgh's outstanding urban heritage, one that ratifies the Caltongate precedent. Former Lord Provost Lesley Hinds betrayed a rare flash of self-doubt after the Haymarket decision when she remarked that "we will be damned or we might be congratulated in the future". I'll place my bet now. The Haymarket tower will be viewed as Edinburgh's biggest post-St James Centre planning gaffe and those who voted for it as dangerous idiots." Sunday Herald Joanna Blythman 'Nothing less than vandalism' http://www.sundayherald.com/oped/opinion/display.var.2436904.0.nothing_less_than_vandalism.php Mr Murphy's tower (isn't he also the Masterplanner for the whole site?) looks very little like the picture on this page. That is completely out of scale.

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  • It looks like Edinburgh is going in exactly the same direction as Liverpool with a development Cabal leading the way forward to build banal architecture so typical of the era we live within. Driving it past the people who care because money talks. To trust todays architects with world heritage is a dangerous game and no more so is there an example as in Liverpool, European Capital of carpet-bagging Vultures 2008. You have to level some element of blame on Unesco they asked for UK government for heritage protection and a white paper was commissioned which is taking forever to bring in but they need to offer serios advice what is ICOMOS supposed to be there for. Top and bottom of it is the DCMS has a permenant delegation to Unesco and here lies the real problem a bunch of beauracrats in London speaking for the people who live there whether it be Liverpool, Bath or Edinburgh this cant be right. This is the 1960s all over again Wayne Colquhoun LIVERPOOL PRESERVATION TRUST

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