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Glasgow School of Art abandoned relocation plans after blowing £1.2 million on refitting a building that was unfit to use

© Jamie WilliamsonThe Charles Oakley Building on Cathedral Street in Glasgow which the Art School proposed to use
The Charles Oakley Building on Cathedral Street in Glasgow which the Art School proposed to use

Bosses at Glasgow School of Art blew £1.25 million on converting a building for students before abandoning the plan, according to confidential documents.

The art school had planned to put students into a disused 1960s college building after a second devastating fire in four years put much of its own campus out of action.

The blaze last summer gutted the school’s iconic Mackintosh building for the second time and made other buildings inaccessible forcing bosses to identify alternative space.

But management abandoned the move to the Charles Oakley building after spending more than £1m on work there. The school claims the building was a contingency plan and not needed but sources suggest management had massively underestimated how much it would cost to refurbish.

Informed sources say it would have cost millions of pounds just to replace the windows in the seven-storey structure and, in September 2018, the school called off the move admitting the need to tackle “significant and immediate” issues with the glazing.

Today the building’s windows have notes on them which say “under no circumstances should this window be opened”. Some windows are missing and one fell out during the initial refurbishment work. Glasgow School of Art said the cash spent on the building was covered by the business interruption insurance paid out after the second fire but one senior member of staff described the project as an “unmitigated disaster”.

Details are blacked out in board minutes, but an unredacted version seen by The Sunday Post shows the art school spent £757,000 on the main contract. It also spent £134,000 on office furniture, £153,000 on professional fees and £185,000 on IT fees.

Finance director Alastair Milloy, who resigned from his post earlier this year, wrote that the building, in Cathedral Street, was the “least risk and most favoured temporary space solution”. He said only a “minor internal refurbishment programme” was needed.

The amount of time and money spent has angered staff. One said: “Having just seen the Mackintosh building destroyed by a second fire in four years, Glasgow of Art management then leased the obsolete Charles Oakley building to relocate students and staff.

“The board and management committed enormous sums to fitting out the interior and making repairs to the facades, without first confirming the status and integrity of the glazing system.

“With the money already committed, a window fell out, landing on the adjacent public terrace, very luckily without causing injury.

“The project was abandoned, and arrangements for staff and students were hastily remade, including the use of tent structures on a site in Finnieston. The heroic efforts of staff and the forbearance of the students in the face of the situation that ensued cannot be overemphasised.

“However, neither can the unmitigated disaster of the Charles Oakley building, the waste of money and unnecessary disruption to provision of education, through mismanagement by those who lead the Glasgow School of Art.” Local MSP Sandra White said: “This raises questions about the competency of the art school board.”

Fellow Glasgow MSP Pauline McNeill said: “I fully understand the panic the school was in after the second fire, but I think there should have been more stringent diligence earlier in the process before they spent that amount of money.”

Management at the school of art has faced renewed scrutiny in recent months after we revealed how the Mackintosh rebuild was funded by insurance payouts and a huge international fundraising campaign was used on expansion plans.

Yesterday, Glasgow School of Art said: “We had an absolute duty to make sure that there would be appropriate studio and workshop facilities for our students when they returned for the new academic year in autumn 2018.

“After the fire it was not known how long the Bourdon and Reid buildings would be inaccessible inside the Glasgow City Council security cordon.

“We had to look for alternatives for over 1,000 students so we considered a wide range of possible properties. Doing nothing was not an option.

“Work began as soon as possible on the Charles Oakley building to make sure that alternative studios and other facilities would be available if needed.

“Throughout this process we kept the Scottish Funding Council fully informed.

“Like any responsible organisation Glasgow School of Art has business interruption insurance to cover situations such as this.

“No public money was spent on the necessary preparation works in the Charles Oakley building.”

The B-listed Charles Oakley building, built in 1963, is named after the writer and trade unionist who chaired the college board.

It fell out of use after the creation of a “super campus” by owners City of Glasgow College.

Two years ago, £100m plans were unveiled to convert the building into student accommodation. Its renovation and a new building beside it were to provide “400 bedrooms with state-of-the-art facilities in shared apartments”.

But a college spokesperson said: “Despite active endeavours to sell the 1960s building, lack of commercial interest resulted in longer-term plans for the property now being revisited.

“The Charles Oakley building has been unoccupied for some time and there are notices in place to avoid windows being left open and rain coming in to the empty spaces. Given the age of the property, potential buyers and interested parties have been advised that the windows should be replaced. The cost of that can vary and will depend on future use.”