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Work starts - at last - at the home of Adam Smith

Is it a symphony of pneumatic drills? Not quite. Or the rousing clang of scaffolding poles?  Not yet awhile.

But activity is finally evident at Panmure House, just off the Canongate in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Here was where the philosopher and economist Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations. He occupied Panmure House in Edinburgh from 1778 till his death in 1790. He is buried nearby in Canongate Kirkyard.

A full five years since the Edinburgh Business School bought the property from the council for an ambitious renovation project, there are - at last – signs of progress. Bags of builders’ aggregate can be seen. Vans come and go. And an external workers’ canteen and toilet has appeared.

It has taken an inordinate length of time just to get this far. There have been horrific delays in planning, perhaps not unusual for the City of Edinburgh Council whose planning procedures are notoriously slow.

Now, finally, there are signs of activity to realise the bold plans to restore Panmure House and create a major international attraction for students of economics and political economy round the world.

As we wrote here more than a year ago, “little did the leading lights of the Edinburgh Business School imagine that their project to restore the house where Adam Smith lived could become so bogged down in such bureaucratic treacle.  It is a scandal that this project has taken so long. But it is a far greater scandal that the city of Edinburgh has allowed the house where modern economics was fashioned to be abandoned and left to rot.”

The building, used as a remand school, was abandoned by the council and allowed to fall into dilapidation. When acquired for £850,000 by the EBS in 2008, the completion date for refurbishment was 2011. Constant rounds of consultations, amendments, approvals and revisions pushed this date out to 2014. Now 2015 has been pencilled in for its re-opening.

As for the costs of the project, these have spiralled from £3 million to £10 million.

The building is overlooked by drab 1920s tenements and a baleful row of Basil Spence flats. It is accessed by a passageway strewn with council refuse bins, abandoned bags of litter and dog mess. Raised beds have been abandoned to scrub, weeds, beer cans, cigarette ends and empty vodka bottles. 

All this will have to be cleaned up and the immediate surroundings of Panmure House radically redesigned to prevent overseas visitors instantly turning on their heels and walking away.

The revised plans saw sweeping changes to the original submission which was granted approval after lengthy appeal. A proposed glass atrium was scrapped and instead the redevelopment will involve scooping out a large sub-basement area to create a meeting hall capable of holding 100 people.  The entrance area and new basement hall will be covered by a walled garden and outdoor walkway.

The restoration is backed by 21 Nobel Laureates around the world. It has already secured pledges of financial support totalling £1.5 million. And the Edinburgh Business School is confident of securing a full £10 million of funding, both for the building and to finance study programmes to secure its future as an intellectual hub at the centre of the capital.

If all goes well, this will make the restored Panmure House one of the most prestigious academic centres in Scotland. But it is hard to believe the rotten interior with its crumbling plaster and graffiti covering the basement walls, cannot just be restored but converted into a glorious study centre, with all manner of technological wizardry hidden behind sumptuous wood panelling.

Once again, Scot-Buzz pays tribute to all those who have been working to bring  this dream alive – Professor Keith Lumsden; Professor Sir Alan Peacock, Honorary President of the International Institute of Public finance; Professor Gavin Kennedy, Adam Smith scholar and biographer; Dr. Eamonn Butler of the Adam Smith Institute; Professor Orley Ashenfelter, chairman of the Panmure House Advisory Board, and alongside these others too numerous to mention who deserve recognition  for their dedication and determination to bring this project to fruition.

The realisation of their dream surely cannot come soon enough.