You probably wouldn’t believe this tale if your read it in a library book. In 2004 Edinburgh became the world’s first Unesco City of Literature. This celebrated its writers, as well as initiatives which had consolidated its status as a home of the written word, from Allan Ramsay’s 1725 circulating library, via the 1962 International Writers’ Conference, to the Edinburgh Book Festival, founded 21 years later and still going strong.
The council had played its part. A 2002 study by architects LDN, Privilege or Purgatory, A Conservation Plan, stated: ‘The site behind the original building [on George IV Bridge] offers exciting possibilities for reinventing the Central Library. It would be a hugely wasted opportunity if the site was developed for other uses without seriously considering how it could not just solve the existing problems but reinvent the Central Library in a form relevant to 21st century needs and aspirations. The concept of expansion on the site addresses virtually all problems.’
This was an auld sang. A 1994 Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland competition to upgrade the library designed by George Washington Browne and funded by Andrew Carnegie, won by Benson & Forsyth, was one of many visions which would prove as illusory as an Angela Carter unicorn. Well, here’s how to make a library project vanish into thin air, if you’re Edinburgh council. The 2002 report was endorsed, and LDN instructed to produce a ‘Strategic Options Development Study’. This re-iterated its earlier observation: ‘The qualitative experience of the library is of a rather shabby, much loved, but somewhat neglected institution – [the] clear recommendation is to develop the vacant site to the west of the existing Library to create a new, purpose made facility.’
In 2008 the world economy crashed and Edinburgh became mired in a revenue-sapping tram fiasco and a property corruption scandal. Like Benson & Forsyth’s 1994 scheme, LDN’s Privilege or Purgatory – ‘a first step towards Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic Scotland grant applications’ – was spiked. Purgatory won out. By 2011, with the library’s ‘importance within the city’s cultural infrastructure – set to increase with Edinburgh’s designation as the first UNESCO City of Literature’ there was ‘now an opportunity to take forward a more strategic development of the Central Library and surrounding area, giving the potential to create a real cultural destination point’.
But the council’s Policy and Strategy Committee would ditch a vision, not fulfill one. ‘The gap site to the rear – was originally identified as a potential extension opportunity – however development has not been possible due to funding issues.’ Apparently, it was now ‘surplus to operational requirements’. The betrayal of Carnegie’s legacy was underway. Nearby other ‘surplus’ buildings included the Victoria Street Health and Social Care offices and the Cowgatehead Church. Glasgow’s Mitchell Library had expanded in 1962, 1981, and 2007, Dunfermline’s Carnegie library had a new extension, but Edinburgh’s flagship library was shrinking. With that illusory prospect of expansion the adjacent annex, which housed the music department and a children’s library, was sold.
The coup de grâce was a 2013 report by Bennetts Associates ‘premised on an option to discharge the annex building to the south of the Cowgate and consolidate the Library into the buildings to the north. The proposals avoid large extensions and allow neighbouring council assets to be developed or sold to raise capital’. This reflected a reductive economic development model of asset stripping culminating in an ‘Edinburgh 12’ list of sites for ‘regeneration’ drawn up by, among others, the council’s head of business development. India buildings went to Duddingston Developments Ltd in June 2007 under a so-called ‘Fit for Future’ programme which involved culling ‘traditional’ council properties, the better to finance a glitzy Stevenage-style HQ, Waverley Court. Plans for a boutique India Buildings hotel were lodged by Gregor Shore, but that company, like Duddingston Developments, was wound up, and the asset taken over by West Register (Realisations) Limited, a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland, which sold it in January 2014 to Jansons West London and Thames Valley Limited, a hotel developer backed by the £6 billion property empire of the William Pears Group.
At times Edinburgh’s business seemed to be controlled by a shadowy techno-elite linked to the property industry. When the Edinburgh Evening News failed to locate a picture of Colin Smith, alleged ‘fixer’ to the council’s then CEO Dame Sue Bruce, they ran a shot of Harvey Keitel, the ‘fixer’ Winston ‘The Wolf’ Wolfe in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. For ‘fixing’ various problems like the tram fiasco, Smith’s company, Hg Consulting, received in excess of £1 million.
There is an endearing Scotch myth that Edinburgh’s big property deals are cut in the exclusive New Club or on Muirfield’s fairways by members of the Speculative Society. Wrong. Today’s slicing and dicing is globalized and the souk of choice is the Marche International des Professionals d’Immobilier in Cannes, where city bosses invite wheeler-dealer property moguls to pitch schemes. If this horse fair for council bigwigs and transnational plutocrats may not quite justify Private Eye’s ‘Booze ’n’ Hookerfest’ label (though Edinburgh did offer whisky tasting in 2011) the Guardian’s take on MIPIM as ‘an event so lavish as to be almost comic’ has the ring of truth about it.
MIPIM is also an embarrassment-free zone. Eyebrows were raised when Southwark Council leader Peter John visited Cannes courtesy of global giant Lendlease. Later challenged on his council’s decision to sell Lendlease its Heygate Estate, he insisted his ‘conscience was clear’. Edinburgh, too, had its ‘synergies’. In 2014, Bruce, was named ‘UK City Leader of the Year’ in the ‘prestigious’ MIPIM UK awards for her part in ‘driving the city’s economic acheivements’.
At MIPIM there is little talk of emptying bins or filling potholes as council panjandrums are schmoozed on yachts and tune into Boris Johnson’s keynote speech. Jonathan Guthrie, ‘Edinburgh City Council’s Investment Promotions Manager’, reminded readers on page 53 of the 2011 programme – in which the UK was hailed as ‘The 2011 country of honour’ – that Edinburgh had been named MIPIM’s ‘Best Small City of the Future, 2010’. Such accolades reflect the ‘crane-count’ mindset of the property sector and its council allies, rather than cultural staples such as library provision or the education of the young. The Central Librarys deterioration is shocking, despite a token rebrand of its Scottish section which involved replacing an oak balcony, replete with heraldic panels and an art-deco clock, with a shop-style refit in glass, steel, and melamine. This vulgarity came at a price. The Edinburgh Room, much valued by locals and increasing numbers of North Americans researching their Scottish origins, was axed.
The rot was pervasive. I requested a copy of Charles McKean and Bob Harris’s The Scottish Town in the Age of the Enlightenment having read a review by American academic Ned Landesman, who quoted a passage stating that ‘libraries, literacy, and education were dominant’ in the average Scottish town. The librarian replied ruefully. ‘They think it’s more important to redo our space than it is to fix the IT, or buy books.’ Here was a public library, it seems, with no adequate book purchasing budget; a novel concept indeed.
In fairness, many local politicians opposed the land sale. It’s likely, too, that it horrified those responsible for the successful 2004 City of Literature bid. Then there’s the small print. The council granted a hotel consent in apparent breach of EU Law, for Schedule 2 of the relevant regulations states that an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required where development is in a ‘sensitive area’ such as ‘a property appearing on the World Heritage List kept under article 11(2) of the 1972 UNESCO Convention’. No EIA was undertaken. If it had been, a little nugget might have surfaced. The council’s environmental health officers had recommended against granting consent because the Cowgate’s air quality, which already breached recommended levels, would be exacerbated by the construction of the proposed eleven-storey building, while the data collection methodology had been defective. This was ignored, and the state regulator, the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA), kept shtoom, in effect siding with the developers.
But the Jansons/Pears project is toxic in more ways than one. With support from such luminaries as Alexander McCall Smith, Sir Tom Devine and Rory Bremner, a crowdfunded campaign raised almost £30,000 for a court challenge which, had it cited EU law, may well have succeeded. Unfortunately EU law seems to have little traction in Scotland’s courts. For the developer, a Pyrrhic victory cannot be discounted, especially after the air quality scandal was outed in Private Eye. The campaigners are not giving up, and with the support of local MP Tommy Sheppard, among others, are seeking a reversal of the planning consent under Section 65 of the Planning (Scotland) Act. The developers clearly discerned a need for a white knight, and, like the 7th Cavalry, Richard Branson duly announced the first Virgin Hotel in Europe, while ‘listening’ to the concerns of the local community. The primary concern of campaign group SAVE Edinburgh Central Library, of course, is that a grossly overscaled hotel will obstruct the library’s sunset views to Edinburgh Castle and block daylight – pointedly, the strapline of the campaign, Let there be light, repeats the inscription above the building’s entrance.
Might Virgin offer a glimmer of hope? After all, Jane-Anne Gadhia CEO of Virgin Money is to be the ‘Independent Chair’ of the Culture in Cities Enquiry, which will look at the role museums, libraries and galleries can play in reviving civic pride. Besides, not only had I once had a book published under Virgin’s imprint; I had even, in the early 1990s, tried to persuade its Hotel Group to acquire another important Washington Browne building – The Scottish Equitable HQ in St Andrew Square – as a potential boutique hotel. I emailed hotel group CEO Raul Leal and suggested to Virgin’s PR team that the way to win public support would be to replace its industrial-scale 225-250 bedroom monster with a smaller ‘premium brand’ hotel, preserving views and light and avoiding the crepuscular endark-enment of Enlightenment Edinburgh’s Carnegie Library.
Elsewhere, premium hotels place quality over quantity. At 181 rooms – seven fewer than Edinburgh’s Balmoral – New York’s famous writers’ hotel, the Algonquin, is on the large side for a prestigious hotel, yet is perhaps a third smaller than Virgin’s proposed Edinburgh flagship. The ultra-prestigious Plaza on Central Park has even reduced its original 800-plus room total to 130. The US billionaire philanthropist Richard Driehaus has headed the acquisition of the Bonham hotel in Drumsheugh Gardens, with a mere 49 rooms. A 250 room bed-night stacker shoehorned into such a tight site is simply a mass-marketing travesty, by comparison, yet for all the spin about ‘listening to the community’ the reply from Virgin’s David Moth was uncompromising: ‘Our business case for India Buildings is based on the scale of hotel that is proposed and I am sorry, but we can’t reduce the number of rooms substantially as you have suggested without compromising the financial viability of the project.’
This issue is about more than a business model for a hotel. Perhaps Virgin has signed up to a deal it doesn’t control, and is merely providing a sign over the door. The complexity of ownership, now vested obscurely in a Guernsey offshore company, India Buildings Ltd, may mean that other interests, such as investment bankers Flemyn LLP, Jansons, and the William Pears Group, are steering the ship, and Virgin is unable to reduce the number of rooms even if it wanted to. Who knows? However, as far as the citizens of Edinburgh are concerned, the functional, social, educational and spiritual value of a library is to serve the community. For this writer, after a childhood spent in one of Scotland’s poorest estates, and lacking the advantages of a university education, Edinburgh’s central library was a cathedral of knowledge and a treasure house of wonderment. We inherit with Carnegie’s legacy a duty of stewardship to future generations. As Alberto Manguel, the director of the National Library of Argentina, has written: ‘Without public libraries, and without a conscious understanding of their role, a society of the written word is doomed to oblivion.’