Edinburgh’s “most important historic buildings have now [allegedly] been saved.” What about the rest?

POSTED ON March 18, 2022

It was suggested last week that the best of Edinburgh’s built heritage that was previously in danger has now been saved or is in the process of being saved. Here’s our view.

As champions of this fine city’s built heritage and civic amenity for almost a century and half, a bold headline claim in last Friday’s Scotsman that “City leaders say almost all of Edinburgh’s most important historic buildings have now been saved” certainly grabbed our attention. We read on with interest…

The second paragraph soon revealed that rather than the saving built heritage across the entire city, as the headline suggested, the piece was actually referring solely to buildings within the World Heritage Site boundaries, covering mainly the Old and New Towns.

The article mentions the successful completion of restoration and conversion projects of historic A-listed buildings at Riddles Court, St Andrew’s Square, the Canongate and on Calton Hill. It also lists ongoing projects, such as the hugely controversial India Buildings/Virgin Hotel project that saw the sale by the Council of Common Good land next to the Central Library, and the new music school planned for the Old Royal High School or renewed attempts to find a long-term sustainable future for the Tron Kirk.

Depute Council Leader Cllr Cammy Day describes his belief that “The significant progress in bringing these iconic buildings back to life and returning them to public use demonstrates the value of development in our wonderful World Heritage site.” He then goes on to single out the conversion of the once publicly-owned India Buildings to a private luxury hotel as an exemplar of the sort of developments he finds “impressive.”

The Scotsman story sprang from a Council press release which goes into further detail about the specific downward trend in A-listed buildings at risk in the World Heritage Area over the last decade, from 16 buildings in 2012, to just two “once current or planned restoration works complete.” Naturally, this improved situation is to be welcomed, the sensitive repurposing of our older buildings has never been more important, particularly as we battle a climate crisis that demands a more responsible management of the carbon that is embedded in existing building stock.

There is a suggestion that much of this progress is down to the actions of the current City Council.  There is no doubt that there is some truth in this and the Cockburn welcomes the ongoing commitment to conserving not just our historic buildings within the World Heritage Site but across all the city as well.  However, this commitment was also the result of decades, nay centuries, of campaigning by many organisations, like the Cockburn Association, to encourage the city’s councillors to adopt a more enlightened attitude towards the historic fabric of the city.

So, without wishing to be the proverbial ghost at the celebratory feast, we must acknowledge what goes unsaid in the article and the press release and place these recent developments into their wider historic context.

Sadly, the Council’s attitude towards our built heritage has not always been positive and direct as Councillor Day observes it is today.  Many will be unaware of the proposals in the 1949 Civic Survey & Plan for Edinburgh – the development plan of the day that was adopted as a formal city policy in the mid 20th century.  This far-reaching plan proposed the wide-scale demolition many parts of Edinburgh, within the area now inscribed as a World Heritage Site and beyond.  For example, with the exception of the Lawnmarket and some iconic buildings like Moubray House and John Knox’s House, much of the Old Town was earmarked for demolition.  Although formalised in the 1965 Development Plan, only in Leith and St Leonard’s did the Comprehensive Development Area proposals really get a significant grip, but neighbourhoods such as Portobello and Tollcross were earmarked for the same treatment.

(Section through George Street showing new building form, Princes Street Panel 1968.)

The Princes Street Panel of 1968, in its attempt to address declining fortunes on this most iconic of streets (a concern still with us), proposed the demolition of the first New Town in almost its entirety.

The University of Edinburgh, not to be underplayed by the city authorities, managed to destroy much of the Southside in accord with its masterplan proposals of the 1960s.  These threats to historic streets are not things of the distant past. Even in the late 1990s, the most significant neo-classical town square in the world, Charlotte Square, was under threat when planning and listed building consent was granted for the demolition of the south side of the square behind a retained façade.  The list goes on.

(Illustration from University of Edinburgh’s 1962 Masterplan showing new space decks elevated above South Clerk Street with the dome of the Old Quad in the background.)

Even today, there are significant challenges which can divide opinion.  The proposals to convert the former Royal High School into a luxury hotel (finally rejected after a lengthy appeal in 2018) were divisive and controversial.  The initial plans conceived in 2019 to improve the capacity of Waverley Station with the City Council as firm development partners in it, suggested the demolition of this category A-listed building in the heart of the World Heritage Site.  Thankfully, revised proposals seem to suggest otherwise.

The City of Edinburgh currently has 19 A-listed sites on the Buildings at Risk register, 36 B-listed sites, 10 C-listed sites and a further 16 unlisted sites at risk if imminent loss. The vast majority of these are in private ownership, but many are in institutional hands and in the (neglected) care of the state or the local authority. What of their future? Must we accept the current dogma that insists neglect of public built heritage can only be halted when such institutions enter private partnerships with organisations whose commercial interests are often entirely incompatible with public and community interest?

What about the destruction of buildings across the city that do not feature on the buildings at risk register? A search of the Council’s Planning Portal of applications made over the same ten year period described above that include the word “demolition” reveals 1592 instances. Now clearly, these applications were not all granted, many would not have been controversial and some would also have been absolutely necessary, but what about the others? Changing cultural tastes, deliberate and avoidable neglect, the desire to maximise end-profits and other factors have all contributed to many sorry losses to the city’s built fabric during the last decade.  Many developers seem to continue to see a listed building as a hurdle to be overcome, as evidenced by current proposals in the west of the city to largely demolish the former Corn Exchange buildings in Chesser to make way for mixed-tenure housing.

In late Autumn last year our Director Terry Levinthal explored this very theme in a blog making the case against demolition following renewed online discussions by those witnessing the demolition of the old grain silo in Leith Docks. In early December there was a significant social media commentary about the wholly unnecessary destruction of a Victorian end terrace of perfectly serviceable homes near the Meadows.

We welcome many of the success stories listed in last week’s article, but we cannot let the uncaveated headline distract from an evidently wider malaise still afflicting large sections of Edinburgh’s built heritage. Significant and possibly less significant, but nonetheless worthy, sites across the city are lying neglected or improperly maintained. Many of these are increasingly vulnerable to demolition and loss, needlessly squandering tangible and intangible heritage as well as massive amounts of embodied carbon.

So, whilst we welcome the restoration and reuse of historic buildings, there is a more pressing need when it comes to the care and conservation of our historic buildings and landscapes.

(A much-needed building repair goes unattended to in East Market Street.)

Perhaps not surprisingly, the press release from the City Council didn’t touch on the declining condition of our historic building stock and significant issue of under-resourced maintenance and repair.  In an article published on 5 January 2020 in The Scotsman it was reported:

“According to the Scottish House Condition Survey, 50 per cent of Scottish housing is in a state of critical disrepair, and almost half of this demands urgent attention. Two thirds of housing constructed over 100 years ago is in a state of critical repair and a third requires both urgent and critical attention. But the problem is not limited to older properties. A quarter of housing built after 1982 is also in a state of critical disrepair while 8 per cent requires urgent attention.”

Edinburgh is not immune to this decay.  A recent survey undertaken by Edinburgh World Heritage and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, identified that 72% of the buildings in the historic centre of Edinburgh are in need of significant repair due to a backlog of neglected maintenance work (as reported here).  Whilst we are at it, let’s not forget about the need of repairs to our streetscapes too – figures reported recently in The Evening News estimated that the cost of repairing the city’s potholes now tops a whopping £71 million!

(Former Tram Depot in Shrubhill)

So, the care of Edinburgh’s heritage buildings and places is clearly a very mixed picture.  It is great to see investment in properties with new uses that give them a new lease of life but this doesn’t count for much if we do not care for them in the longer term too.

This is why the Cockburn believes that maintenance and repair of existing buildings, streets and places should be considered a strategic objective of city governance. Please help us to make this happen by becoming a member today of Scotland’s oldest active campaigning conservation organisation. Join us here.

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