Sunday, 22 March 2015

Is Edinburgh Squandering Its Heritage? What is going on?

There is something happening in the centre of Edinburgh, which invites the question of what is going on? My research into the Royal Mile reveals the shift from a retail offering that caters for a residential community to one that caters for visitors,. However, where are the product offerings that are made in Scotland, particularly when the Royal Mile harboured, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a rich manufacturing base. Even with the demise of this manufacturing base, as late as 1984, the Canongate Venture, in New Street, of Canongate, was a hive of entrepreneurial activity. Now, the only production in the Royal Mile is fudge and tartan material for the ever prominent visitors.

If the frame of study is extended to the New Town and beyond, then most recently there are puzzling developments. The B-listed Scottish Provident building, in St Andrew Square, was razed to the ground during the summer of 2014. Among those critical of this move is architect, Malcolm Fraser, who draws public attention this in The Scotsman, noting that it was one of the finest modern buildings in Scotland.[1] Moreover, it is reported in the Evening News that developers had submitted new plans for the levelled site which were at odds with those originally proposed[2]. Then the Edinburgh’s Evening News reveals that the A-listed ‘old Royal High School’ building, which was built in the 1820s and has lain relatively unused since 1968, is to be converted into a luxury hotel.[3]  Further, that in 2012, the building had been placed on the Buildings at Risk Register.[4]  This is followed by the news that a government review recommends the closure of General Register House, the custom built Robert Adam building dating back to the eighteenth century.[5] Other major developments include the redevelopment of the 1970s St James Centre, and the long derelict sites at Caltongate and Haymarket.

In each of these three major developments there is provision for hotels. The website ( of developer, TIAA Henderson Real Estate (TH Real Estate) reveals that the new ‘St James Quarter’, will not only provide 250 new homes and a retail offering, but also will include hotel accommodation: “The hotel is designed as an inspiring and attractive investment opportunity with up to 210 hotel rooms, as well as an enticing 41,000 sq. ft. apart hotel that has the potential to provide up to 70 suites”. The Caltongate site is a ‘mixed use development’, which will include the delivery of housing (both affordable and open market), offices, hotel, retail, food and drink premises. The hospitality trade website  reports that this site will host Premier Inn’s first Edinburgh ‘Hub’, comprising 130 rooms, as well as a 127 room Premier Inn[6]. The notion of a ‘Hub’ is a Premier Inn innovation, which provides a value for money compact room (11.4 m2) in redeveloped existing city center buildings.[7] A second, 157 room ‘Hub’ is planned to be opened in late 2015 in Rose Street in the New Town. The Haymarket complex will comprise retail and office space as well as a 190 bed hotel and 168 apart-hotel ( A press release by the site’s developer, Interserve, reports that a 150-room Premier Inn ‘Hub’, the third, is to be built on this site.[8]

To add to this, is not only the £50m development of the airport, which will increase passenger numbers by over two million by 2020, but this is accompanied by the proposal of a £15 million hotel development (Hampton Hilton Hotel), creating 175 bedrooms.[9]

One has to ask the question whether this additional provision of commercial space, particularly hotel accommodation is sustainable. An increasing amount of hotel room provision has been added in the last few years so that, currently  around 40% of all hotel accommodation is provided by four hotel chains, of which three can be described as ‘budget’. The City of Edinburgh Council report ‘Edinburgh by Numbers, 2014’ reveals that hotel occupancy peaks in August at around 90%, though falls to a low of around 60% in January. Moreover, VisitScotland statistics reveal that the number of nights spent by domestic and overseas visitors dropped by 1% and 20% respectively over the period 2006 to 2013. To add to this profile is the provision of and recent growth in purpose built student accommodation, with 12,249 bedspaces being supplied by both the university and private sectors, with an additional 5,657 bedspaces in the pipeline[10]. During the summer months, when students are away, then how much of this accommodation will be made available to visitors? Is there really a need for more hotels?

When the sustainability argument is added to this, then of the three pillars of sustainability (social, economic and environmental[11]), the social pillar, which draws attention to that which is embedded in the locality (e.g. host community, local producers, heritage) appears to be neglected. The commodification of the tourism offering to the apparent detriment of everything else will reduce the integrity of a location that has a rich heritage, expressed not only in terms of the physical infrastructure, but also through its community, their activities and that which has sustained this community. I suggest that Edinburgh is not a sustainable city.

The picture presented above is perhaps ignoring the positive work being carried out in the rest of Edinburgh, but this calls for better visibility of the work and a more systemic evaluation of what is going on, so that what is happening in the Royal Mile can be better contextualised. Nevertheless, my focus upon the Royal Mile, which for centuries has been the hub of Edinburgh’s residential community, does raise questions about this hub. Where is the community? Where is that which can sustain this community? What is being done to avoid the dilution of this hub’s heritage? Why would visitors want to come to Edinburgh in ten years time if this trend  continues? What is going on?

[1]  Malcolm Fraser: Backbone can keep Provident standing. The Scotsman, 13th Aug. 2014., 15th Feb. 2014
Architect hits out at ‘bland’ Edinburgh designs. Evening News, 18th Aug. 2014., 15th Feb. 2015
[2] Developers under fire over St Andrew Square plans. Evening News, 31st Oct. 2014., 15th Feb. 2015
[3] Luxury hotel planned for Old Royal High School. Edinburgh Evening News, 17th Dec. 2014., 15th Feb. 2014.
£55m hotel plan for old Edinburgh Royal High, The Scotsman, 5th Feb 2015., 15th Feb. 2014.
[5] Review recommends closure of General Register House. Evening News, 7th Feb. 2015., 15th Feb. 2015.
[6] Whitbread to open Hub and Premier Inn hotels at £150m Edinburgh development. By Emma Eversham, 9th Dec 2013.
[7] Whitbread Press Release: Whitbread Launches New Hotel Concept. 2nd July 2013, 15th Feb. 2015.
[8] Major hotel agreement for Edinburgh’s West End. Interserve Press Office 4th Nov. 2014., 15th Feb. 2015.
[9] £15m hotel plan amid Edinburgh Airport traffic rise. Evening News, 20th Nov. 2014., 15th Feb. 2015.
[11] Making Tourism More Sustainable, A guide for policy makers UNWTO/UNEP, 2005, 19th Feb 2015.