Royal High School decision: at last

Alison Johnstone welcomes the long-awaited decision over the former Royal High School on Calton Hill.

Edinburgh has long been nicknamed the ‘Athens of the North’. Whether for its long history as a seat of learning or its abundance of beautiful neoclassical architecture, it is a reputation well-earned. The Old Royal High School echoes this moniker. For almost 140 years, it was the home of the Royal High School of Edinburgh until it moved to new premises in 1968. And it has been lauded by the architectural community as one of the finest examples of the Greek Revival style anywhere in the world.

Also known as New Parliament House, it has a special place in our political history. The beautiful main hall of the building was kitted out as a debating chamber ahead of the 1979 Scottish Assembly referendum. The green leather benches and an early electronic voting system are all still there, largely unused except by the Scottish Grand Committee of MPs, which last met in 2003, and the occasional public event. I remember, many years ago now, attending my first Scottish Green party conference there.

A truly outstanding architectural jewel, a Category A listed building, deserves to be used again, not to stand empty.

But luxury “six star” accommodation that can only be enjoyed by the wealthy is not the way forward, and I am delighted that Scottish Ministers rejected the hotel developers’ appeal last week.

With demolition of some parts of the building and two very large modern wings proposed to its sides, Scottish Ministers said the proposal would cause “considerable damage” to such an important building and would detract from the very special Calton Hill setting, also home to an array of other significant structures, such as the National Monument.

Last week’s decision may well have gone a different way had it not been for the incredible hard work of heritage bodies including the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland and the Cockburn Association, as well as residents campaigning through the New Town & Broughton Community Council, and the Regent, Royal, Carlton Terraces & Mews Association, among other groups. And, of course, the thousands upon thousands of residents who objected. The two Green Lothian MSPs, myself and Andy Wightman, have backed them throughout, as has our hard-working local councillor Claire Miller. Both Claire and I spoke at the Planning Committee’s hearings in 2017.

This is a question of democracy in the planning system. Had the proposal been approved by the Committee, local residents would have had no voice at all. This is why it is so important to have a community right to appeal against planning decisions. And why the SNP were so out-of-step with the public mood in rejecting Andy Wightman’s attempts to give communities this right.

Alexander McCall Smith said that “Edinburgh is a city of shifting light, of changing skies, of sudden vistas. A city so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again.” And so it is. But it won’t always be unless we develop our city with a clear sense of a vision for the kind of city we aspire to be. One that looks to the future but preserves its past and heritage. A blow for that vision was struck last week, but we must keep fighting for it.