Art school management unfit to be guardian of Glasgow’s heritage

EVERY aspect of our political system depends on effective accountability. At the top of government, accountability is now ineffective because too many people get in the way. But this is not a column about the Met Police’s inept disruption of Sue Gray’s investigation into rule breaking in Downing Street.

Closer to home, we have a story where too few people have sought the truth, not too many.

Twice in four years the board and management of Glasgow’s finest building, the glorious and irreplaceable art school built by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, have left that building – the Mack – to burn to destruction.

The first fire, in 2014, was the fault of a gross mistake in the basement of the building. The misuse of highly flammable foam next to a red-hot projector that had been left on to overheat should never have happened. This should never have happened. Yet those who allowed this to happen were never held accountable.

Investigations into the second, even more devastating fire in 2018 continued for four and a half years. The official report on the June 2018 fire was released last week. His main conclusion was that the cause of the fire remains unknown and probably always will be.

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But look closer and you’ll find three damning indictments. You will find a series of unanswered questions. You will find a catalog of culpable errors, for which not a single head has rolled. And you will find an abject reluctance to say what needs to be said about the mismanagement of the art school, the fire, Glasgow City Council, the destruction of what was our city’s architectural gem and criminal neglect of what was once one of its finest, most prosperous and vibrant thoroughfares.

The people of Glasgow have a reputation for being outspoken – to call it that – but on these matters our civil servants are curiously mute and cutesy. So let’s be frank: the GSA Board and management are a disgrace and have proven, not once but twice, that they are unfit to continue to be stewards of Glasgow’s heritage. They destroyed the Mack’s past: they cannot be allowed to decide its future.

A Holyrood committee report in 2019 accused the art school of failing to protect the 112-year-old listed building from the significant risk of fire before it was badly damaged by fire in 2014. It has said the GSA had been too lax in taking preventative measures and should have installed a misting fire suppression system much sooner. The committee was not convinced that the GSA had an adequate risk management approach in relation to the Mackintosh building.

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Glasgow City Council, I’m afraid to say, is no better. They have no plan for the recovery of Sauchiehall Street, no plan for the redevelopment of Garnethill, no vision and no interest in supporting residents or businesses dragged to their knees.

Have you walked Sauchiehall Street lately? The number of shops closed and properties boarded up is devastating. The poverty of ambition of the town hall pushes a whole section of our city center into a decline close to ruin.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) may have concluded that we will never know who started the blaze. But we know it. We know that no alarm went off the night of the fire.

We know that the alarm system on the scaffolding that housed the Mack had been repeatedly reported as faulty. And we know that nothing has been done about it. We also know that even when the system was working, it did not cover all the scaffolding around the building.

We know that Glasgow’s extraordinary fire crews arrived at the scene of the blaze within six minutes of finally calling 999.

And we know that by the time they arrived, the fire was raging through several floors and had already spread the full length of the building. We also know this has happened before – and that the same ducting and venting faults that allowed flames to spread so quickly in 2014 also sparked a blaze across the Mack before fire crews from the city can’t do anything.

The SFRS report points no fingers. Who is responsible for the fact that nothing was learned from the experience of the 2014 fire: the GSA itself, or its contractors who were responsible for rebuilding the Mack?

The report doesn’t say so, but come on. You don’t have to be Sue Gray to know this was an abject failure of leadership, with leadership presiding over a culture that blatantly failed – not once, but twice – to act responsibly. in managing our city’s unique and globally significant heritage.

Buildings make Edinburgh, but people make Glasgow: so the old saying goes. But in this case, our people have failed our city badly. It is high time to change. Glasgow thrives on its nightlife economy. Our live music scene is second to none. Tied to our heritage as a global leader in the art and architecture, the Mack should be restored not as an arts school, but as a hub for music and art across Glasgow.

Same night we lost the Mack, we also lost one of the best in town music places, the ABC on Sauchiehall Street. From the ABC, via the Mack on Garnethill, to the Royal Conservatory and Concert Hall, with King Tut’s a block south – this arch is set to be reimagined as the new beating heart of Glasgow’s nightlife economy.

Let’s face it, Sauchiehall Street’s days as a retail and shopping avenue are over and they’re not coming back no matter how many trees are planted and how wide the bike lanes are.

But that shouldn’t mean the end of the road. This should herald a new beginning. Glasgow was good at reinventing itself and dreaming big. We weigh above our weight – or at least we used to – and we turn adversity into opportunity. In June 2018 we lost something of immense value to anyone who loves Glasgow.

Those who allowed this tragedy to unfold should be bulldozed while the people of this town rebuild from scratch.

Our columns are a platform for writers to voice their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.

Jeremy S. McLain