Edinburgh Central Library vs Virgin Hotel petition

A petition to City of Edinburgh Council was originally launched at a public meeting at Central Hall, Tollcross, on 29 May 2018, at which signatures were collected, but was initially rejected by City of Edinburgh Council, and so was re-submitted online, in the end twice, before eventually being accepted on 20 July 2018.

For more information see:




Let There Be Light Edinburgh, Public Meeting 29 May 2018 Gathering audience in Central Hall, Tollcross, 29 May 2018



Edinburgh Central Library vs Virgin Hotel petition stated that:

We the under-signed call for the City of Edinburgh Council to safeguard the Category A listed Central Library, a key resource in the literary and cultural landscape of the nation’s capital, and:

1) Require a detailed report on Edinburgh Central Library as a flagship cultural project of national/international significance commensurate with existing professional advice to the Council and the Council’s own reports*.

2) Require a detailed report on purchasing back land and buildings which form part of the India Buildings hotel-led development, sold by the Council without a full consultation on the implications for the Central Library.


Architect Neil Simpson was Let There Be Light Edinburgh’s delegation of one, with support from the group in the public gallery when the petition was presented to the relevant Education Children and Families Committee on 11 December 2018 and is reproduced here:

‘Thank you to the Committee for the opportunity to speak to you about the concerns of our group Let There Be Light Edinburgh for the Central Library and I firstly want to note wide public interest. The petition on the council website stems from a public meeting in May this year at Central Halls in Tollcross which was attended by 350 people; SAVE Edinburgh Central Library, our fundraising arm associated with the judicial review, raised £30k from over 500 donators. And the separate 38 degrees online petition has over 5 ½ thousand signatures. Interest in the future of the Central Library includes writers such as Irvine Welsh, Val McDermid, James Robertson, Jackie Kay, Sir Tom Devine and has stretched across the pond to include Margaret Atwood.

We are not here today to replay a planning decision which will bring Edinburgh the accolade of the first Virgin Hotel in Europe but rather, to discuss the stewardship of the Central Library. We appreciate that this committee’s new responsibility in that role sits alongside the responsibility for other important city services.

The Central Library is an anomaly in your asset portfolio, a different scale to any of the community libraries. The range and depth of its rich historic collections is its principal strength. It is not only the local library for Old Town residents but the city’s flagship library, in a city which is the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. A fond emotional attachment is held by many citizens from across the city, as they recall that the Library has offered them a place to pursue knowledge and information, providing a route for social mobility, or simply a welcome space for contemplation. Its central location next to other important libraries and places of culture (and leisure) means it is easily accessible by all (until that is we get in the front door).

Usher Hall, Kings Theatre, Commonwealth Pool, the Assembly Rooms, they’ve all been at it ….I have been told that the Central Library was always ‘in the queue’ for capital investment. What happened I wonder? And why is there no sense of urgency?

The predecessor to this committee have received many useful reports. In 2002, still with the Annexe across the Cowgate, we are told the Library is “labyrnthine, inefficient and inaccessible to many”…the route between the Art & Design Library and the basement toilets comes to mind.

The conclusion of this important Conservation Plan by LDN Architects for the A listed George Washington Browne building is that:

It would be a hugely wasted opportunity if the [Cowgate gap] site was developed for other uses without seriously considering how it could, not just solve the existing problems of the Central Library, but re-invent the Central Library in a form relevant to 21st century needs and aspirations. The concept of expansion on the site addresses virtually all problems currently relating to the Library.”

2008 was a crucial year for the Central Library and if you only have time to read one document I recommend the Central Library Strategic Options Development Study, again by LDN architects. This exemplary report explains the value of City Libraries, cites national and international exemplars, reports on workshops that brought together officers and elected members from across the Council to discuss the Library under clear criteria of assessment. Options, including moving to a new building, are compared. The clear preference, again, was to extend onto the Cowgate gap site with a new purpose made facility linked to the re-developed existing building. The evidence is there for a rational and rigorous process.

However 2008 did not end well. Somehow, and without as far as we can see, full explanation (though a projected capital receipt of £5.25m is mentioned) the Policy & Strategy Committee agreed to consider options for the disposal of the site to the rear of the library. However, even at this point, the likely requirement for some future extension of the Library was to be included in any development proposal.

In 2011 the idea of a wider regeneration project comes to full fruition, called the Literature Quarter Project, and now including the owners of India Buildings on Victoria Street. This proposed to link the Central Library with shared spaces – I don’t think anyone quite knew how this would work – to a literature themed hotel that now stretched all the way back to the Cowgate. The George Washington Browne building we were told would be completely refurbished as part of these proposals and, there was an urgency.

The Policy and Strategy Committee told us:

The Central Library remains in critical need of major investment to create a building fit for purpose. The estimated cost to meet basic refurbishment requirements for Health and Safety and Disabled Access is around £10m….proposals are now required to address the critical condition of the building and deliver a Central Library fit for purpose for Scotland’s capital city in the 21st Century.”

Where has the sense of urgency gone? In 2016 planning permission was granted for the 225 bed newbuild hotel on the gap site and this public land was subsequently sold as part of an off-market transaction. We were surprised that not even the reduced capital receipt of £3.4m was ring-fenced for the Library. This committee has some understanding of the resulting lost daylight but the stolen sunlight and views are less easily quantified. The Virgin Hotel represents a 180 degree about face on the ambitions for the Central Library since the exemplary study at 2008. Instead of ample room to extend and modernise it has been given a straight jacket and I suggest, a blindfold.

There remains then ONLY the possibility of expanding into the vaults below George IV Bridge. In fact Library Services had commissioned a Feasibility Study in 2014, by architects Bennetts, which did just that. Otherwise these proposals stay within the footprint of the existing buildings. This 2014 study is the latest proposal before this committee and deserves your close scrutiny.

In my professional opinion it simply does not deliver: Proposals to use the vaults below George IV Bridge carry a strong caveat about water ingress and books have not been placed here. Instead we have multiple black-box spaces, part of an unnamed ‘cultural hub’, which appear to prioritise festival income. Is this we wonder at the expense of the libraries core services?

Most important is that we are told there is not enough floor area. Library Services own requirements can not be met. Further, this floor area brief at 2014 is a drastic reduction in ambition from 2008. We are told there is no room now for the long desired partnering of the City Archives.

In the difficult task to bridge floor levels between two existing buildings the circulation is a guddle of minor ramps. Welcome new lifts are not easily found on entering the front door. A café is planned where the current children’s library sits and we have the ubiquitous rooftop restaurant, both fine. However the tranquillity of the domed Reference Library, perhaps the best municipal reading room in the country, is interrupted with a new hole in the floor displacing the centrally positioned study desks.

And where storage rooms are proposed to be newly converted to public use, at the book stack for example illustrated by the architects with streaming sunlit and Old Town roofline views, we will instead have a hotel wall only meters away. Worse is that hugely important collections will be relegated to lower floors in the shadow of the Virgin Hotel. The Art and Design Library and below that, the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection will be darkened by 82% by the hotel.

What to do? Looking back at the well reasoned options in LDN’s 2008 study, the second best option, after expansion into the gap site, was consolidation of the heritage collection including the city archives at George IV Bridge with a separate lending Library located, for example, on Princes Street. This solution would not satisfy many of my colleagues but does illustrate a possible way out of a very difficult situation.

Finally this committee may be aware that Property Condition Surveys have recently been completed and the Central Library received a C or ‘Poor’ rating – one away from the worst category where the building is falling down. How much of this relates to long-standing urgent work noted in 2011? How much of this is health and safety or disability discrimination act related and when, we wonder, will this be carried out. Could or should this be the catalyst for the capital project?

In summary, most of the issues identified in repeated studies about the Central Library remain and if anything recent years, epitomised by the acquiescence to the Virgin Hotel, have seen a distinct loss of urgency and worse, a perception of no real concern. Notwithstanding the move of the Music and Children’s Library from the Annex, the Central Library remains on the whole a neglected building…I’m thinking of the single small lift that delivers you – not quite – to the Art Library, there’s still another half a dozen steps to negotiate. The palpable decay is particularly evident when measured against other cities. I’ve just come back from Amsterdam which has a superb new City Library. Manchester and Glasgow have invested in their historic City Library buildings and I highly recommend a visit to Dunfermline to see that city’s tribute to Carnegie’s legacy in their acclaimed library extension.

We respectfully request the committee’s urgent review of a capital project for the Central Library in the form of a dedicated report which clarifies ambitions – particularly floor area requirements for core library services and the requirement for wonderful daylit and sunny rooms for our City Library.

Please, Let there be light Edinburgh!’

Presentation by Neil Simpson, Neil Simpson Architects, to Education Children and Families Committee on 11 December 2018, Item 7.1, see webcast via City of Edinburgh Council’s Webcasts webage: https://edinburgh.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/368121

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