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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 19 June 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Point of Order, European Union Exit Negotiations (Progress), Police Scotland Complaints and Conduct Review, Scottish Crown Estate Bill: Stage 1, Scottish Crown Estate Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, International Women in Engineering Day


Topical Question Time

Glasgow School of Art Fire

To ask the Scottish Government what discussions it has had with relevant bodies regarding the recent fire and on-going situation at the Glasgow School of Art. (S5T-01154)

We are all shocked by the devastation that the fire has brought to the iconic Mackintosh building, a landmark in Glasgow and renowned across the world. Thankfully, there were no casualties.

The First Minister spoke with Alasdair Hay, chief fire officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, on Saturday 16 June to discuss the response to the fire and she visited the scene to thank firefighters and those from other emergency services for their outstanding efforts to bring the devastating fire under control and manage the situation. The Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs met Iain Bushell, the deputy chief fire officer, this morning to discuss the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and echoed the First Minister’s sentiments. The Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science and I met senior colleagues from the Glasgow School of Art, including the school’s director and the chair of the board, yesterday afternoon to discuss the on-going situation at the Mackintosh building and what support might be required in the period ahead; Historic Environment Scotland and the Scottish Further and Higher Education Funding Council were also present. During the response phase of the fire, officials were in communication with the emergency services and Glasgow City Council through the well-established Scottish Government resilience arrangements.

The fire is a devastating event, but I can assure members that the Scottish Government and its agencies have provided what support we can and will continue to do so.

I pay tribute to the firefighters, who I met the other day and who have worked tirelessly to bring the fire under control, and to all the services involved in the response to what is a devastating blow for everyone involved in the Mackintosh building locally and internationally. However, this major fire also has far-reaching implications for local people who are unable to access their flats and for local businesses that are unable to operate, with staff being laid off. What support can the Scottish Government offer to those affected?

Those are important points. On the role of the emergency services, I think that the fire has shown the benefit of having the single service that is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which drew fire appliances and crew from across Scotland. The firefighters should be commended for their outstanding professionalism in responding rapidly and containing the fire. Until fairly recently there was a live fire site operation; indeed, as I understand it, the containment continues through the presence of the fire service. In clearing the space late on Friday night and ensuring people’s safety through the evacuation, the other emergency services also acted in an exemplary way.

The cordon that the member asked about is there for continued safety until the security of buildings can be assured by the relevant authorities. However, it has had major implications for local businesses, which have also faced issues because of recent fires in other parts of Sauchiehall Street. I know that Sauchiehall Street is subject to a city deal redevelopment and that the city council leader, Susan Aitken, is meeting businesses this afternoon. I understand that the council is offering, as it can, zero rating for businesses, which is appropriate. We will work with the council to understand what the Government can do in some of these areas, not least because the loss of the O2 ABC also has major implications for those who are employed there and for music development. It is important that we recognise that and that we stand ready to provide what support we can.

Local businesses and people will certainly be very pleased to hear what the cabinet secretary said, particularly the point about zero rating for businesses. Obviously, the O2 ABC and the Centre for Contemporary Arts have also been very badly affected by the fire. We do not want to speculate, but the cabinet secretary will be aware that many questions are being asked about how the fire happened, particularly given the previous fire. I have been asked the following questions, as have other members. Were sprinklers installed? Were smoke alarms installed? Was security there? Those are all valid questions. What steps have been taken to investigate how the fire happened and when are we likely to have much-needed answers to those questions?

Those are questions that many people will want answered. I am not in a position to answer them, but I can speak for the Scottish Government in assuring the member that the fire investigation that is taking place includes the police looking at whether they can rule out criminal activity. The investigations will establish what can be known, including what was being managed at the construction site and how fire management was being delivered. Such issues have already been addressed in part by a statement from Kier Construction, which was managing the site—we must remember that it was a construction site at the time of the fire—and by others.

Sandra White has made her points very well but, as she will appreciate, I do not want to rush to judgment or to speculate. I want to deal in facts and to ensure that the relevant authorities have the time to reflect the information accurately.

I thank Sandra White for bringing the matter to the chamber, and I thank the cabinet secretary for the tone and tenor of her answers.

This is the third major fire in the Sauchiehall Street area of Glasgow city centre in the past four years, and it is the second to afflict Glasgow School of Art’s much-beloved Mack building. This fire looks as though it is by far the most serious of the three major fires. It is not only the Glasgow School of Art that has been all but destroyed; the much-loved and very successful music venue, the O2 ABC, has also been damaged. Like many members of the Scottish Parliament and many people whom we represent, I have spent much time there enjoying all sorts of music events.

The economic devastation caused to that part of Glasgow city centre is immense. Can the cabinet secretary explain, in a little bit more detail than she was able to go into in her first answer to Sandra White, exactly what support the Scottish Government will give to businesses in the Sauchiehall Street area to ensure that that part of Glasgow city centre continues to thrive and prosper in the future, as it has done in the past?

Adam Tomkins reflects on the seriousness of the fire to other buildings. I reinforce the point that it is amazing that there have been no casualties, bearing in mind the proximity of the fire to what could have been a large number of people in the O2 ABC and the neighbouring nightclub. The fact that the fire did not happen an hour or two later, when many more people were expected in the area, is fortunate, and the fire service deserves credit for its evacuation plans.

There are a number of immediate issues in relation to the economy of Sauchiehall Street to do with access beyond the cordon and the short-term zero rating of business rates, which I understand is happening. I understand that Glasgow City Council’s leader is meeting businesses this afternoon. Let us hear from them about their views and concerns.

The night-time economy of Glasgow is extremely important, and I am aware that Sauchiehall Street is vital to that night-time economy. I assure members that, when I reported to Cabinet when we met in Cumnock yesterday and discussed the building and Glasgow School of Art as an institution, I made the point that we have to recognise the wider implications in our response.

I will not offer immediate solutions to the issue, as the fire happened only on Friday night. However, we need to ensure that businesses are sustained in the short term and, more important, that they develop in the long term. I want to speak to Glasgow City Council and those involved in the night-time economy. I want a vibrant arts scene in Scotland at the Glasgow School of Art, and I want a vibrant music scene. Both of those things need to be addressed in our response.

I associate myself with the remarks that have been made by other members.

I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has recognised the importance of the Sauchiehall Street area to Glasgow’s economy and to Scotland’s music industry. She is well aware that there is a serious concern that Sauchiehall Street might not recover from the fire if it does not get the right support. Businesses are already concerned about the impact on trade. The leader of Glasgow City Council announced this morning that zero rates will apply to businesses within the cordon, but it is not clear what will happen to those businesses and surrounding businesses after the cordon has been lifted. Is the cabinet secretary able to comment on what support can be given to such businesses specifically through business rates?

I associate myself with the remarks of Adam Tomkins and the cabinet secretary on the O2 ABC. It is a world-renowned, world-class music venue, and I know that its future will not be sidelined by some of the issues that surround it. It is a very special place. I believe—and I hope—that the cabinet secretary and everybody who is involved will work together very closely to ensure that all the institutions have a future where they are.

I hope that Pauline McNeill understands from my remarks that I understand the issues around Sauchiehall Street and the importance of the O2 ABC to the music scene not just in Scotland but further afield. It is interesting that I have probably had more questions about that venue today than about the Mackintosh building. Parliament has spoken in that regard.

I reassure people who are watching these proceedings that we understand that, although there must be support for Glasgow School of Art in assessing the Mackintosh building, which inspires great love, loyalty and affection in those who have studied and worked in it, it should be recognised that the response must look at the wider area. I have said that I brought the matter to the Cabinet’s attention yesterday because there are wider issues and Cabinet colleagues with other portfolios will have an interest.

I will reflect back the views of MSPs to the Cabinet, particularly to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and the Constitution. Perhaps business rates in the longer term or in the wider area can be considered. However, I want to hear directly from the businesses themselves and the task force that has been set up what they think would be the most useful thing for businesses. That is a very important step in the Government’s wider response beyond the heritage response, which I will lead on.

A few more members wish to ask questions. I will take a few more short questions if they are questions and not just expressions of sympathy.

Given the three fires that Adam Tomkins mentioned and the fire not many years before them that destroyed the Shack, which was just around the corner from Glasgow School of Art, is the wider question not only about reassuring the public on the safety of our built environment but about being proactive? Should we regard the question not as one of heritage alone and take a more proactive approach to ensuring that our built environment—whether in Charing Cross in Glasgow or anywhere else—is looked after so that we do not see such things happen to buildings that we cannot afford to lose?

Patrick Harvie makes a valid point. The Cabinet discussed the importance of having a clear understanding of responsibilities and the actions that are required to ensure, as far as possible, the safety of, and prevention of fire in, all the built environment, particularly that of a heritage nature. Sometimes, it is not until a disaster happens that people are conscious of the importance of the built environment and things such as roofing repairs and fire safety. The country needs to come to terms with the fact that there are many older buildings, particularly in Glasgow. Focusing on that fact would help us to prevent issues and to take responsibility for our built environment, which is precious but potentially dangerous if fires or other incidents happen.

The artist Lachlan Goudie described Glasgow School of Art as probably the most important piece of Scottish art ever produced. Although what has happened is of concern to Glasgow and businesses—with other members, I express sympathy for them—this is also about our nation and what it gives to the world. Glasgow School of Art is of worldwide significance.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of the report by John Cole on Kier Construction, which is the contractor responsible for the work at Glasgow School of Art. He was extremely critical of its work on Dumfries leisure centre; in fact, he described it as “virtually unprecedented” in its number of faults including “inadequate” fire stopping. Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is shocking that that company was put in charge of the restoration of the most important piece of Scottish art ever produced?

As a Government minister, I cannot rush to judgments on anything about the fire incident without explanations from the investigations that are taking place. I caution members on what they accuse institutions of doing or not doing until the information is there. People can and will express their views and opinions but, as a Government minister, I have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that we have the facts and the evidence in place before I make any judgments.

Glasgow School of Art is important to Glasgow’s and Scotland’s historical, architectural and cultural legacy and future, so it was devastating to witness those scenes over the weekend. Will the cabinet secretary update us on any initial structural engineering reports? If it is not yet safe to carry out that work, when might that information be available, so that we can fully understand the options for Glasgow School of Art?

I emphasise that we are still in a period when safety and security are paramount. Throughout the weekend and into Monday and Tuesday, fire appliances have been on site. Until it is safe to go on to the site, that level of structural assessment cannot take place.

There has been initial structural assessment, which I would describe as superficial. Drones could be used in a safer environment. The assessments are taking place today and over the next few days, but it is premature to say definitively what the building’s status is. Securing the safety of the building and the surrounding area is paramount. Once we are assured that that has been achieved, further assessments will take place, which will primarily be undertaken by Glasgow City Council’s building control.

We are all anxious to find out how secure the shell of the building is. I visited the school in February, and it is obvious that the interior has been lost. The latest fire is quite different from the previous fire, from which the east wing was, by and large, protected by the fire service’s swift actions. Because of the fire’s ferocity and severity, the complex challenge presented by it is still being dealt with as we speak. I ask that people bear with us until such time as the structural engineers have full access. Until they do, it is premature to say what the building’s condition is.

The cabinet secretary will be aware that, even though it is Glasgow School of Art, many parts of Scotland have a deep connection with the school, including Moray, where its rural campus is based. Will she convey to the authorities, the staff and the students that, if there is anything that the people of Moray or, indeed, the rest of Scotland can do to help, we stand ready to do so?

That is an important point. The messages of support and the solidarity shown by the people and the institutions of Scotland in places such as Moray and elsewhere will be well received.

As I have said, last night, I met the senior leadership of Glasgow School of Art, who have carried out extensive work right through from Friday night. It is important that they hear everyone’s support for what Joan McAlpine has described as the best piece of Scottish art. Those messages of support are important.

We stand with Glasgow School of Art and with the people of Glasgow. Internationally, the world of art stands with Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Thank you, cabinet secretary. That concludes topical questions. I apologise to those members whom I was unable to call.