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Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, June 20, 2019

Agenda: Business Motion, General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Glasgow School of Art Fire, Planning (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 (Day 3), Portfolio Question Time, Provisional Outturn 2018-19, Gender Recognition Act 2004 Review, Planning (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Decision Time


Glasgow School of Art Fire

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-17623, in the name of Pauline McNeill, on the first anniversary of the Glasgow School of Art fire.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes with regret the first anniversary of the second devastating Glasgow School of Art fire; notes the deep and long-lasting damage that it has caused to the businesses and residents of Garnethill, Sauchiehall Street and the surrounding area; acknowledges the trauma experienced by displaced residents of Garnethill who were prevented from returning to their homes to collect their belongings on the night of the fire and for the following three months; understands that businesses and residents are still experiencing problems with vehicle access, refuse collection and insurance claims; recognises the severe impact on the local business community and is concerned that some businesses have been unable to reopen while others have had to relocate elsewhere at a huge loss to their business; welcomes the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee report, The Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh building: The loss of a national treasure; notes the belief that it is the shared responsibility of the UK Government, Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council to secure the recovery and long-term future of Sauchiehall Street as an area of economic and cultural importance for Glasgow; acknowledges the concern that such a long-term plan is not yet in place a year on from the fire, and notes the calls on all political parties and relevant agencies to work together to ensure that a full recovery can be made as soon as possible.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I lead this cross-party debate on the first anniversary of the Glasgow School of Art fire, and I have been working closely with Adam Tomkins, Sandra White and Patrick Harvie to represent the people and the businesses of Garnethill and Sauchiehall Street that have been devastated. It is important to highlight that the fire destroyed not only the much-loved Mackintosh building, but the O2 ABC, Campus and the entire block.

On 15 June 2018, Abdeh Mahmood and her family went to celebrate Eid at their uncle’s house in the south side of Glasgow. The family returned home at about 11.30 that night, all dressed in their Eid best—Abdeh told me that she was wearing her fancy high heels. As they got closer to home, they saw that, across the motorway, the skyline was ablaze. Soon after, they were told that they could not return home because, for the second time in four years, the Glasgow School of Art was on fire and the street had been cordoned off.

All that Abdeh had on her was one bank card. Like all the other families affected, there was no time to collect important personal belongings—all the things that they would need in their lives. Abdeh, for example, needed her autistic son’s guardian documents, passport and medication in order to look after him. In the days after the fire, she was refused money from a bank—an experience that she said made her feel like a refugee in her own city.

Families were split up due to difficulties in getting emergency accommodation. A total of 67 residents were shut out of their homes for three months without being allowed a single visit to collect their personal belongings. In my opinion, that was unacceptable. In total, 33 businesses were devastated. Some of the residents were running their business from home, so members will appreciate the devastation that the fire has caused them.

The blaze was fought by 120 firefighters, who are to be congratulated on their incredible stamina and expertise in fighting the fierce and enormous fire.

The people affected by the fire know that it has changed their lives and will continue to do so for a very long time.

I will never forget walking down Sauchiehall Street, months after the fire, with Councillor Frank McAveety, counting the number of closed businesses and meeting the devastated owners who had lost so much—owners who still risk losing everything as they face continuing problems even today.

Any resident or business, when asked whether they believe that the authorities’ response was adequate will say that they felt abandoned, because it took five weeks before anyone senior from the council came to speak to them. Contingency plans were slow and information was unsatisfactory. Lessons must be learned.

Amir, a resident, said:

“They did not provide the leadership that was needed to help us navigate this crisis ... we, as displaced residents, had to reach out to the Scottish Government asking them to step in and take control. The situation was so dire that we needed our belongings and all we got were threats of arrest”

for trying to breach the cordon. Amir is referring to residents’ call for one-hour access to get essentials. Such access has been allowed after disasters in other cities, so why was that not allowed in Glasgow?

I want to thank John Sherry, who was appointed as the central point of contact for residents and businesses. His job was not an easy one. I would also like to thank Raymond Barlow, from building control, who took my calls when I had some questions to ask. We as a city must learn lessons from this.

The disaster has also exposed Glasgow School of Art’s poor relationship with the local community. Indeed, as an elected member, I find it staggering that most residents had never been invited into the school. The commitment by Muriel Gray, who I wish well in her retirement, to never let this happen again must be honoured by the new chair and director.

People do not feel safe in their own homes now, and they will not feel safe until there had been some accountability for this fire. New-build plans for the school must be shown to be robust both in the materials that are used and in the approach to construction.

As we all have many questions about what actually happened on that night, we must see the fire report as soon as is practicably possible. We need answers. I also commend the sterling work of Joan McAlpine and the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee. They have helped enormously, and I back their call for a public inquiry.

Battles are still on-going with insurance companies, some of which are trying to recover the support provided by the Scottish Government. In other words, they are trying to take back the money that Derek Mackay granted to help the affected businesses that I and the MSPs whom I have mentioned are supporting. I acknowledge the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work’s help for those businesses by setting up the fire recovery fund in response to our demands, but they have had only a 10 per cent reduction in their non-domestic rates and they are struggling to survive. Wok to Wok, a well-known eating place in Sauchiehall Street, is gone; Campus is shut; Bagel Mania is struggling to stay; and the newsagent in News Box, who has been there for 20 years, told us very recently that he is battling to survive.

My heart also goes out to all those who had been working on the £35 million restoration just before the fire. Many, like myself, are very proud of our heritage in the Glasgow School of Art. As for the future, the public must be fully involved in any decisions that are made, and that involvement must be taken forward with the utmost sensitivity. The relationship between the Glasgow School of Art and the local community must start afresh, and the new frontage that is being planned and the on-going work must be live to the trauma that people have experienced. The motion signed by members calls on the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council to work together to safeguard the area and secure the short and long-term future of Sauchiehall Street, because there is deep concern that because so much has happened, it might not fully recover.

The O2 ABC, which was a magnet for entertainment in the area, was utterly destroyed in the fire. When I met the owner, Michael Haddock, last month, he confirmed that it was his intention to rebuild what was an extremely important venue for Glasgow’s music scene as a modern, fit-for-purpose building. He has completed a detailed report on the structural damage, which is severe; importantly, he also confirmed that the plans will include an option to retain the façade, if that is at all possible. We need swift action from the council with regard to the viability of the façade, because the timescale for rebuilding the O2 ABC is absolutely critical.

If Sauchiehall Street is to have a strong and secure future, we must all work together over the next couple of years to ensure that that part of the city thrives again. The Centre for Contemporary Arts, the Garage and the O2 ABC will need to have their loading spaces returned so that they can run their events. In time, we might even be able to have a street festival to bring people together—although I realise that that is a longer way off.

I want to thank all the local people—Gillian, Adrian, Chris, Julie and so many others—who rose to the challenge of being leaders in their local community. I ask Scottish ministers not to abandon Sauchiehall Street but to be an active player in the recovery of one of Scotland’s most famous streets, to work with the United Kingdom Government and Glasgow City Council and to give more help to the people and the businesses that desperately need to put their lives back together.

Thank you very much. Seven members wish to contribute to the debate.


Sandra White (Glasgow Kelvin) (SNP)

I thank Pauline McNeill for that excellent speech. We have worked together and collectively for the good of the Garnethill area, Sauchiehall Street and the residents and businesses there.

First of all, I, like Pauline McNeill, thank the fire service for its absolutely heroic actions not just in 2018 but during the 2014 fire—and I will come back to the fact that there have been two fires. The fire at the Mack on 15 June 2018 was so fierce that people described looking into it as looking into a furnace, and there is no doubt that without the skills and bravery of our firefighters, it could have been so much worse.

The fact that water had to be pumped from the River Clyde, down at the Broomielaw, all the way up the hill, to Garnethill, shows us the enormity of the task that our firefighters faced. We all owe them an enormous thank you for the work that they carried out.

As I said, there have been two devastating fires: one in 2014 and one in 2018. As we await the fire report, we can only speculate on whether that was unfortunate or due to negligence, bad management or criminality. We must have a public inquiry into the two fires to find out exactly what happened at the Mack, and I thank Joan McAlpine and her committee for their work in that regard.

Although the focus has been on the art school, we must not forget the local community, including the local businesses that have suffered—and are still suffering—due to the devastating fire and which have had to relocate, close down or see their takings diminish, as Pauline McNeill mentioned. I thank Derek Mackay and the Scottish Government for initiating the scheme that Pauline McNeill mentioned, which gives money to local businesses to help them along. Unfortunately, the insurance companies have decided to use the £20,000 that the Scottish Government gave to local businesses as a reason not to pay out. That issue has been raised in the House of Commons by Alison Thewliss MP.

The local community, which was already facing disruption due to the avenues project—which, I must admit, is now looking good and is moving along—must also deal with the aftermath of the art school fire, which affected the O2 and devastated that area of Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill. People were unable to access their properties, even to get their pets. A cat was left there for a couple of days and somebody had to break through the barrier—sleekitly—to rescue it. People had to leave behind medicines, personal effects and work belongings. Although we all understand the safety reasons for that, the issue that has come up time and time again during meetings that I have had with the local community is the lack of communication and information, not only from officials, but from the art school as well.

As Pauline McNeill said, lessons have to be learned. People were out of their houses and could not access anything—they were very worried. They could see people wearing hard hats behind the barriers, having their lunch, so why could someone from a residents’ committee not be allowed in to look at the place? Lessons have to be learned.

When Muriel Gray was asked by the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee whether she had any regrets, she said that she regretted not working enough “with the local community”. That is absolutely essential.

I note that the Glasgow School of Art now has a community engagement officer, Harriet Simms—who was appointed in November 2018—and her role is to help better connect the Glasgow School of Art with the local community. I have met the group that has been set up, which has put forward a number of ideas, having worked with students, the local community and Glasgow Kelvin College on various projects—skills, apprenticeships and so on. That is a step forward and perhaps lessons have been learned.

The one lesson that must be learned—and the issue that must be sorted—is that Sauchiehall Street must be restored to its former glory. To Glaswegians, Sauchiehall Street is a jewel in Glasgow’s crown and it must return to being that jewel.


Adam Tomkins (Glasgow) (Con)

I commend Pauline McNeill for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I thank her for her leadership in ensuring that MSPs from all four political parties that represent Glasgow in Parliament have been able to work together in the public interest, and in the city’s interest, to hold decision makers to account for what has been a devastating time for Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill.

I strongly associate myself with Sandra White’s remarks at the beginning of her speech about the debt that we all owe to the courage, bravery and commitment of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in putting out the fire a year ago.

The past 12 months have been profoundly difficult for the businesses and residents of Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill. They have been pushed to breaking point through no fault of their own. Like Pauline McNeill and others, I have been deeply struck by their resilience and tenacity over the past year.

It has to be said that there has, right from the beginning, been an alarming lack of a coherent or joined-up plan from Glasgow City Council to deal with the consequences of the fire. In the days and weeks that followed, information was allowed to trickle down to traders and residents only in the most piecemeal way, and it was clear that the council was constantly on the back foot. One year on, there is still, as far as I can see, no long-term strategy for the recovery of Sauchiehall Street. No one blames the council for the fires, but from that time of crisis, it is clear that Susan Aitken’s administration is one that runs for cover when the going gets tough. That is just not good enough.

We await the findings of the SFRS investigation, which is taking an inordinately long time. In addition to that report—whenever it is published—there is a compelling case for a full independent public inquiry into not only the causes of the fire but the future of the site and the Mackintosh building. I called for such an inquiry in February and was delighted when the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, which is convened by Joan McAlpine, echoed my call in its report, which was published in March. I commend the work that Joan McAlpine and the committee have done.

As many members are, I am concerned by Glasgow School of Art’s continuing apparent lack of civic duty in respect of the area that is serves. Just five days after the blaze, as businesses and residents were prevented from returning to their premises and homes in the immediate aftermath of the fire—as Pauline McNeill has vividly told us—the GSA’s focus was on providing public assurances that the Mack would be rebuilt, that all would be okay and that it would be in charge. That shows blatant disregard for the GSA’s neighbours and does not sit comfortably with the local community.

Let me tell members about the first time I went to see the GSA in the aftermath of the fire, last summer. In the first five minutes of that meeting I was told two things: first, that the fire had nothing to do with the GSA because it did not have stewardship of the building at the time—it was under the stewardship of Kier Construction; and secondly, that the GSA alone would determine how, where and when the building would be rebuilt. That is not leadership, stewardship or custodianship; it is arrogance, and it has no place in decision making about the future of Glasgow School of Art and Garnethill.

We need a full public inquiry, not only to think about the future of the building, but to establish the full facts underpinning what happened a year ago. The fire engines that were sent out from Cowcaddens fire station, just seconds away from Garnethill—it is just around the corner—were there within minutes of the alarm being raised. However, when the fire brigade arrived at the site of the fire, it reported that the building had been ablaze for at least 45 minutes, and perhaps as long as an hour. How on earth, in the middle of Glasgow city centre, could our national treasure, the Mackintosh building of the Glasgow School of Art, be allowed to burn for an hour before an alarm was even sounded? That is a question that Joan McAlpine’s committee rightly identified as needing answers. We need a full independent public inquiry—not to ask those questions but to answer them.

Under the Glasgow School of Art’s stewardship, the Mackintosh building has been allowed to burn down twice in the space of four devastating years. The GSA has failed in its custodianship of a national treasure. I want an inquiry into the future of the building. My personal preference would be for it to be rebuilt as a public asset for us all to enjoy, and as a magnet to draw tourists from all over the world to Glasgow to celebrate the heritage of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. It should not be rebuilt as a private art school.


James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

I congratulate Pauline McNeill on securing this important debate. I compliment Pauline McNeill, Adam Tomkins, Patrick Harvie and Sandra White for working closely with the communities around the Glasgow School of Art, and for providing much-needed support.

On 15 June 2018, I was on a night out in Glasgow. I dropped off a friend on Sauchiehall Street at about half past 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and I could sense that there was a bit of a commotion building—I could hear fire engines. I made my way home, where I was shocked to see the images on social media of the GSA ablaze, and of the chaos unfolding for the people who live in the community.

Three key points must be drawn from the debate. First, we need to learn the lessons from the fire. Adam Tomkins just said that it took 45 minutes for the alarm to be raised. I did not know that until he spoke about it, so when I was down on Sauchiehall Street that night, the fire had probably been ablaze for about an hour, but the fire engines were only then reaching it. That is a matter of real concern.

There has been discussion about potential negligence by the contractors who were reconstructing the building, which might have contributed to the fire. Other fires in the Sauchiehall Street area in recent years—the previous fire in 2014 and the fire at the Pavilion theatre—also need to be considered. In addition, there have been a number of fires throughout the Glasgow area, including at the old vacated Scottish Power site in Cathcart. We need to examine why we are suddenly seeing greater frequency of fires.

The second matter that needs to be considered is how we support the community and businesses. The whole area that runs from the Charing Cross end of Sauchiehall Street down to Buchanan Galleries has had a devastating time in recent years. Between the first GSA fire and the Pavilion theatre fire, many businesses have closed down and tried to reopen. The area is a real hub in Glasgow’s city centre, so we should seek to rebuild it. The comments that members have made about the slow and inadequate response in relation to supporting businesses and people who have been displaced from their houses are absolutely correct.

The third point to make is that the pace of the operation needs to be quicker. It is not good enough that one year down the line we still do not know the reason for the fire. I support the calls for a public inquiry. It is clear that more needs to be done by Glasgow City Council and other authorities to support businesses and local people. Clearly, the debate has shone a light on fundamental issues including why the fire occurred, the role of the GSA in relation to interface with the local community and rebuilding the legacy, and how we support businesses and the community.

I hope that the points that are being made in the debate are taken forward and considered seriously and quickly.


Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

“Oh, no! Not again. God. Not again.” That is about the only thing that I kept saying to myself when I first saw the images of that fire. Everybody who was seeing the images and remembering the fire a few years previously, felt tragic loss. “Not again,” I said to myself.

Whatever criticisms—I will come back to them—have been made of the art school and of the poor communication after the fire, every one of us knows that everybody who was involved with the building or the wider community must have felt as if their hearts were being ripped out of their chests when those first images were shown, or—as Pauline McNeill said in her opening speech—when they were trying to travel home to the community.

First, we need to remember what an utter tragedy it has been not just for those individuals but for our whole city. As others have done, I strenuously thank Pauline McNeill for working to ensure cross-party dialogue, and for bringing today’s debate to the chamber.

I also want to echo other points that have been made. I extend my thanks to the people in the emergency services who responded so quickly, and my empathy to the people who have been directly affected. I also thank the Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee for the work that it has done.

The word “iconic” is overused—everything is described that way, so it has become almost a throwaway term. However, the Mack building absolutely was iconic of Glasgow’s architectural, cultural and creative heritage, and of the hopes for the future generations of young people who would study in our city and their contributions to its cultural life, our country and the world. Sauchiehall Street—where high and low culture are thrown together in a creative way—is also globally iconic of Glasgow’s cultural vibrancy, and of the city itself.

More than just a building was lost. Pauline McNeill reminded us about the O2 ABC and other businesses—either destroyed or still closed—that were directly affected by the fire. However, we lost more than those buildings and businesses. There has been a loss of trust in institutions, through poor communication and dialogue at local government level and, perhaps, at central Government level. Trust in the institution of the art school itself has been severely damaged. I hope that that damage is not irreparable and that trust can be rebuilt. However, we—and the art school’s management—need to acknowledge that that will not happen overnight. Sometimes, trust is harder to rebuild than a physical structure.

Adam Tomkins expressed his disappointment and anger that, a year on from the second fire, no credible long-term plan is in place for the art school or for revival of the wider community, which is such a vital part of Glasgow’s commercial, cultural, social and night-time economy. That community is an important part of the life of our city. It needs a long-term plan and it needs every level of government—UK, Scottish and local—to play its part. It also needs the art school, as an institution, to do so.

However, the community needs them not to dominate the process. Development and implementation of a plan must be led by the whole community that has been affected. The residents, who have been treated poorly throughout the past year, and the businesses—those that survived and others that might return—need to be in the driving seat in developing that plan, which should be about revival of the wider area and not just of one building or institution.

I call on every level of government to commit not only to holding a public inquiry—we need far more than the SFRS’s report—but to development of a plan that is led by the community. That is the only way that we will rebuild the trust that has been lost, which will—as I said—be harder to rebuild than bricks and mortar.


Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

I, too, congratulate Pauline McNeill on securing the debate. My remarks will be informed by the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee’s inquiry into the loss of such a national treasure. I thank Pauline McNeill, Sandra White and Adam Tomkins, who do not sit on the committee but who engaged with our inquiry as well as with all the committee members, its clerks and the witnesses who gave evidence.

The committee members were driven by the fact that, like everyone else, we were shocked that one of our greatest cultural treasures had been destroyed so shortly after the first fire, in 2014. I think that it was the artist Lachlan Goudie who said that the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building was the greatest piece of art that has ever been produced in Scotland. I feel that there is a very strong case for saying so.

Of course, the building was in our custodianship—or, more directly, that of an institution that is largely publicly funded—so it was absolutely appropriate that the committee looked into the events leading up to the second fire. We were probably driven by people saying that the shock of the first fire and the understandable sympathy right across the world might have meant that not enough questions were asked about the origins of that fire. If that fire had not happened, the 2018 fire would not have happened during the restorations.

We are the culture committee, so the focus of our inquiry was on the loss of a cultural treasure. However, it soon became apparent that there was considerable concern about the impact of the fire on the residents of the area. That was made clear by the residents themselves, in their written submissions to the committee, and the engagement of Glasgow MSPs. It was clear from the written evidence that there was a lack of engagement with, respect for and duty of care towards the residents from the GSA.

Witnesses talked about feeling conflicted about the Glasgow School of Art. They love the building, its history and its origins, but they also said that it represents a distant, selfish, inward-looking and thoughtless neighbour. The committee was struck by the written evidence of the residents. One of our recommendations is that more needs to be done to rebuild trust with the community, and that must be done in a formal way. Formal methods of engagement must be drawn up between the management of the art school and the community.

At this point, it is important to say that, whatever decision is made about the rebuilding of the art school, it should not be done by the GSA. It should not be in its custodianship. Two former directors of the Glasgow School of Art told our committee that they do not think that the GSA has the capacity to take on a project of that nature.

We do not have time to go into the detail of the committee’s report, but I hope that we will be able to debate it more fully in the chamber at a later date. We do, however, stand by our key findings. We noted that,

“having clearly identified the risks posed by fire, via a number of reports directly commissioned by the GSA Board, in the period up to 2014, the GSA appears not to have addressed specifically the heightened risk of fire to the Mackintosh building.”

We also noted that

“the GSA Board consider that the fire safety measures that were taken went above and beyond the standards required”,

but the committee was

“unable to obtain any evidence, beyond the decision to eventually install a water mist system in 2008.”

We know that, despite that decision having been taken, the water mist system was not installed before 2014, and it was still not installed before the 2018 fire. During that whole period, knowing the risks to the building, the GSA embarked upon major conservation and capital expenditure projects and, in our view, it did not involve adequate fire protection.

The committee made further recommendations about preserving historic buildings that are at particular risk, and about the Government’s responsibility for doing that. The Government has given a helpful response to the committee’s report, including on regulations, and some commitments that I find constructive and hope to debate at a later date.

In concluding, I return to the SFRS’s response to our report. It is clear that, when it comes out, the SFRS’s report will look only at the causes of the fire and the reasons for its spread. It will not look at the events leading up to the fire and the management of the building. It will not look at the context of the fire. That is why our main finding that there has to be a public inquiry into the fire must stand. It is only through a public inquiry that we can get to the bottom of the events that led to these devastating fires, their effect on the local community and the future of the art school.


Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

I, too, associate myself with the remarks from across the chamber regarding the immense bravery that was shown by the emergency services on that night. I thank Joan McAlpine and the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee for the work that they did regarding the Glasgow School of Art. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate, and I thank Pauline McNeill for shining a light on an issue that, one year later, still affects Glasgow. I am concerned that businesses and residents in Garnethill, Sauchiehall Street and the surrounding areas are still experiencing the effects of the fire, and I hope that the debate will refocus our attentions on sorting the issue for the long term.

One year ago, on 15 June, sadly, the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building caught fire. As we have heard, it was the second fire to hit the building in just four years, and it resulted in extensive and long-lasting damage. Designed by one of Glasgow’s biggest icons, it is a special building that everyone in Glasgow loves and is proud of. I am concerned that residents and businesses are still experiencing problems associated with the fire. Local residents expressed their frustration over feeling as though they were dumped back in their homes after three months and expected just to get on with it. Earlier this year, residents stated that, when it came to making longer-term plans for regenerating the area, they felt they were shut out.

As Pauline McNeill pointed out, on top of that, there have been issues with vehicle access, refuse collection and insurance claims—problems that, one year on, we would not expect to see. Local businesses have also been severely affected by the cordon that was put in place after the fire. Some have relocated, and some have reported losses of up to 75 per cent on the previous year. Sauchiehall Street is of paramount importance to the city’s local economy, and I am concerned that, without bold action, an iconic street is being left to decay. Only last week, retailer Lush Ltd announced the closure of its branch on the street—one of many closures in the past couple of years.

This week, the fire inquiry moved into its final stages. As we have just heard, the main focus is on the likely origin and cause of the fire. As my colleague Adam Tomkins stated, first and foremost, we need a full public inquiry into the events that took place. Serious concerns have been raised over key documents being hidden from public view, and there have been questions about the management and oversight of the restoration by the Glasgow School of Art. With that inquiry, we can also begin to learn vital lessons that have wider significance for historic buildings across the world. As we saw with the Notre Dame cathedral fire in April, buildings can be so much more than the materials that they are made from. They can embody the essence of a city and the pride of the people who live there.

That leads me to my second point. Should we be having wider discussions about what is best for Glasgow in the long term when it comes to the Mackintosh building? The Glasgow School of Art recently reaffirmed its intention to restore the Mackintosh building, but, as Adam Tomkins pointed out, there is the potential to move the building to a different area of the city, to make full use of economic and tourism opportunities.

I will finish by offering my sympathies to those who, one year later, are still affected by the Glasgow School of Art fire. Glaswegians are proud people, and we are proud of our city and its heritage. It is important that local residents do not lose out for reasons that are outside their control and that we restore that iconic building to its former glory.

The Presiding Officer

I would like to accommodate one more member who wishes to contribute, as well as the minister, so I will accept a motion without notice, under rule 8.14.3, to extend the debate by up to 30 minutes. I invite Pauline McNeill to move such a motion.

Motion moved,

That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[Pauline McNeill]

Motion agreed to.


Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I welcome the motion and I praise my colleague Ms McNeill for her powerful and detailed speech, which highlighted the serious issues that her constituents face as a result of the devastating fire at Glasgow School of Art. I recognise that she also gave credit to the cross-party efforts in raising those concerns.

The trauma for local residents who were unable to return to their homes for an extended period shows the individual consequences of such a significant event, and it is important that we address the difficulties that the residents have experienced.

The location of the school of art means that, a year on, residents continue to face challenges with vehicle access and services such as bin collections. There have also been significant consequences for local businesses, with some relocating and others unable to reopen, both of which are options that have notable financial impacts. I agree with Pauline McNeill that the council and the Scottish and UK Governments need to make a joint effort to ensure that the Sauchiehall Street area has recovered and to continue to support those who are affected.

I am pleased by the reports that the art school has been working more with the Garnethill community to improve relations, and I hope that that continues, as it has been made clear that there was a failure in communication. That relationship is particularly important in relation to any proposals for the restoration of the Mackintosh building and the carrying out of such work.

As a member of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, I welcomed our inquiry. Although its timing—it was held ahead of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s report on its investigation—meant that, to some extent, our work was limited by our not knowing the cause of the more recent fire, the committee’s ability to respond to such issues of public interest and to provide a forum for exploring matters and providing scrutiny is definitely welcome.

With more than 47,000 listed buildings and more than 3,500 category A listed buildings, Scotland is a country with great built heritage, and historic properties are a key contributor to our reputation as a desirable tourist destination. However, the listing system that is used by Historic Environment Scotland, which covers a vast number of properties, currently lacks a formal means of recognising the smaller subset of category A properties that are so culturally and historically significant that they are of national importance, such as the Mackintosh building. As such, the system offers no ability to provide them with enhanced protection.

Work could be done to identify which of the A listed buildings are of critical importance, with a view to compelling owners to take additional steps, such as providing enhanced fire safety measures, and related public funding could be provided with the flexibility to allow that. The committee recommended that the Scottish Government, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and Historic Environment Scotland should review category A listed buildings to assess whether interventions are required to reduce fire risk and to provide other specific protection.

A related issue is the remit of Historic Environment Scotland, which is to perform a leadership role in the conservation and preservation of historic buildings, but that remit does not provide the organisation with a clear role in ensuring that there is adequate fire prevention for buildings such as the Glasgow School of Art. The committee called for a review of HES’s remit and the possible extension of its powers in areas such as the taking of measures to safeguard against fire in buildings that are recognised to be of national and cultural importance.

Although the school of art has repeatedly stated its intention to rebuild the Mackintosh building, there is debate about whether the current arrangements for the management of the site are the most suitable. Given the other responsibilities of GSA board members, are they able to give sufficient priority to the safeguarding of the site? Would more specific expertise at board level, or alternative arrangements such as those that could be provided by the creation of a trust, better reflect the building’s importance? As with the issue of fire protection, that is not just a question for the art school; it is one for all custodians of historic buildings of national and cultural importance. We need to ensure that adequate protection is provided to such buildings.

The committee recommended that, once the investigation is concluded and the SFRS report has been published, the Scottish Government should establish a public inquiry, with judicial powers, into the 2014 and 2018 fires. I believe that there is merit in that proposal for the reasons that have been outlined by other members. Such an inquiry would also provide an avenue for considering the fire risks at historic buildings nationally and the ability of custodians to manage those properties.


The Minister for Public Finance and Digital Economy (Kate Forbes)

I thank members for taking part in the debate, and I thank Pauline McNeill for lodging such an open and collaborative motion that reflects on the cross-party work that has been done over the past year.

I found the speeches quite moving in places; they were also practical in describing the challenges that residents and businesses face and the actions that are required as we look to the future. It is poignant and fitting that the debate is taking place within a week of the first anniversary of the fire.

As an aside, I mention that my sister was a resident on Sauchiehall Street, about a minute away from the art school, when the fire spread. I know that she and her wider family felt a sense of fear, worry and panic; that must have been a tiny iota of what it must have been like for the many people who saw the spread of the fire and who have had to face the consequences of it for months—indeed, for a year.

I am responding to this debate because of the wider economic implications of the fire, which shows the breadth of the issues. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs has already responded formally to the committee’s recent report, which was welcomed by the Scottish Government.

The culture secretary has said that she will await the outcome of the SFRS’s investigation before responding in greater depth to all the committee’s recommendations in the report, including the recommendation for a public inquiry.

Pauline McNeill

I am pleased that the minister recognises the wider implications in relation to the Sauchiehall and Garnethill area. That is the primary concern for everyone. Will the minister address what the role of the Scottish Government could be? I just want to make sure that she will cover that point.

Kate Forbes

Yes, I will certainly come on to that point.

I know that there are no adequate words to capture the sense of disbelief, which Patrick Harvie outlined very well, and the devastation wrought by the fire, both to the physical fabric of the historic building and to its significance as a cultural and educational institute. However, it also caused acute difficulties for residents and businesses in the area and although some issues were quickly identified, clearly some were not identified or responded to as quickly as they could have been.

That is partly due to the inescapable consequences of such a large fire and the efforts of the emergency services in its aftermath. However, some of the issues were due to the uniqueness of the site. It was in the face of that unprecedented situation that the Scottish Government agreed to become involved. I can vouch for the personal support and interest of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, having seen some of his efforts and interventions over the past year.

Recognising the enormous challenge that is still at hand, we will not abandon Sauchiehall Street; we remain absolutely committed to our active involvement and will continue to work collaboratively with Glasgow City Council and others. We need to reflect on the actions to date and build on them. For example, Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government created a joint emergency fund for households that were suddenly uprooted and displaced by the fire, and £123,000 has been paid through that fund to support 32 separate affected households.

In June 2018, the finance secretary announced a £5 million recovery fund for businesses, and more than 200 businesses have received over £3 million in grant support from that fund. In December 2018, the finance secretary announced that the remaining balance of around £1.85 million would be made available to Glasgow City Council to support further business recovery. That has allowed the council to ensure that eligible businesses were not liable for business rates to the end of the last financial year.

I know that those actions and that support do not diminish the enormous challenges that are still faced by residents and businesses, but I hope that they have provided them with a little bit of breathing space during a very difficult time. However, a lot of speakers have identified problems with insurance. My officials were in contact with the Association of British Insurers in the immediate aftermath of the fire and that dialogue continues; I would be happy to offer Pauline McNeill and others the opportunity to connect with the ABI directly, if they have not already spoken to it directly, to identify some of the challenges with insurance.

Sandra White identified the bigger priority of ensuring that Sauchiehall Street recovers. It must be restored to its former position as the significant retail, trade, and cultural location that it has been known as for so long. That is of course the primary responsibility of Glasgow City Council as the local authority, but the Scottish Government will work with the council in any way that we can. Work on the Sauchiehall and Garnethill regeneration framework will continue; it is a 10-year plan and includes the avenues that have been identified, as well as a range of other local improvements.

Nevertheless, the effects of the fire will continue to be felt for some time, and the memory of such fear and worry cannot be erased quickly.

I do not say this lightly, but my hopes for the future are exactly those that Adam Tomkins identified: to find a way to restore Sauchiehall Street to make it even better than it was before; to restore the Mack building to make it even better and more accessible than it was before; and to ensure that we restore the sense of community so that there are no awkward neighbours, as was identified in the committee’s report. We must ensure that we do not go through that sense of disbelief and devastation ever again, and ensure that lessons are learned and that there is collaboration. I hope that the political leadership that has been shown across different parties in the past year can take us forward into the future.

13:35 Meeting suspended.  










14:00 On resuming—