A MASSIVE £850 million project to transform the east end of Edinburgh’s city centre was given the go-ahead by the city council yesterday.

Up to one million square feet of prime retail space, plus a hotel, car park, restaurant, cinema and houses will now be built on the site of the current St James Centre between Princes Street, Leith Walk and York Place.

A major obstacle in the way of re-developing St James Centre into the Edinburgh St James Quarter was removed by the Development Sub-Committee of the council, which yesterday voted by nine votes to five to approve the use of limestone cladding for the development, despite a claimed risk to the city’s World Heritage status which convener councillor Ian Perry said the committee “would ignore at our peril”.

Developers TH Real Estate had been urged by conservationists and planners to use sandstone on keeping with much of the city centre, but experts said it would take 20 years to supply such sandstone from a UK quarry.

A report to the committee stated: “Limestone is not a material widely used in Edinburgh and in particular, the New Town. Both old and new buildings in the New Town typically use sandstone.

“The continued use of sandstone spans 250 years, from the inception of the New Town, with buildings like Register House, right through to recent developments like Multrees Walk and Harvey Nichols.

“While there are a variety of different architectural styles in the immediate location, it is the use of sandstone that provides a unifying effect.”

Planning officials noted, however, that “the applicant makes a strong case for the use of limestone” and added: “There is no doubt that limestone is a high quality material. It is used extensively in locations throughout the UK and in certain buildings in Edinburgh.”

In a debate that lasted more than two hours, Labour councillor Maureen Child made a crucial intervention saying that she had been convinced “it had to be sandstone” prior to the meeting, but after hearing from the applicants and their architects she was supporting the limestone option.

After the decision, conservation body the Cockburn Association railed against the committee. Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “Sadly the committee decided that limestone is OK on the primary facades of the St James development against the advice of Historic Scotland, the World Heritage Trust, the planning officers and the Cockburn Association.

“All are concerned that the World Heritage status will be affected by the use of this alien stone in such a sensitive location and a development of this enormity.”

TH Real Estate had already been given planning permission for the conversion and alterations to St Andrew’s Hall and 27-31 James Craig Walk which forms part of the Edinburgh St James site.

The entire development, however, hinged on the limestone issue, and TH Real Estate can now proceed with what they call “one of the largest regeneration projects in Britain”.

Designed by Edinburgh architects Allan Murray, the total area for redevelopment is 1.7 million square feet, and the development could be crucial in the council’s decision on whether or not to extend the controversial tram line from York Place down Leith Walk.

Approval was also granted yesterday for 143 flats on the upper four floors of the eight-storey building.

Martin Perry, director of development with TH Real Estate, said: “We are absolutely delighted the City of Edinburgh council has backed our vision for Edinburgh St James.

“We are now focused on the next phase of our plans for this landmark development.”