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Mounting calls for judge to secure answers on art school fires

© Getty ImagesForensic experts sift through the ashes of the library after the first blaze at Glasgow School of Art in 2014
Forensic experts sift through the ashes of the library after the first blaze at Glasgow School of Art in 2014

A judge-led inquiry into the fires at Glasgow School of Art must be ordered, according to MSPs, amid fears that other iconic buildings are in peril.

An investigation by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) into the second blaze which destroyed the Charles Rennie Mackintosh masterpiece took almost four years to complete but failed to find the cause because of the extent of the damage.

MSPs are now demanding an inquiry with judicial powers into the 2014 and 2018 fires. A public inquiry was one of the recommendations of the Scottish Parliament’s culture committee in 2019 after its inquiry. None of its recommendations have so far been actioned.

They included a fire protection audit and a review of legislation and funding to ensure Scotland’s architectural treasures were given maximum protection. There are more than 3,700 category A-listed buildings in Scotland.

Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart, a former member of the culture committee, said: “On this Scottish Government’s watch, one of the country’s most iconic buildings burned down not once but twice. After the inconclusive report from Scottish Fire and Rescue, it is now time for an independent judge-led inquiry to take over and probe the broader issues.

“The committee made clear recommendations to ensure our heritage is properly protected but we have seen little progress in implementing those proposals.”

One key recommendation was a review of A-listed buildings to detail additional protection. At the time, then-culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said she had asked officials to take this forward in liaison with Historic Environment Scotland. But last week it admitted nothing had been done while waiting for the fire service to finish its inquiry.

Wishart said: “By now there should have been a review of category A-listed buildings to make sure that additional interventions to reduce the threat posed by fires are properly considered and introduced. I worry that another iconic landmark could meet the same tragic fate.”

The Scottish Parliament’s constitution, Europe, external affairs and culture committee discussed its work programme, and whether to take further evidence on the art school fire, in private on Thursday. It said: “In the first instance, we will write to the Scottish Government to seek an update in light of the SFRS report. The committee’s next steps will be determined by this response.”

Labour MSP Claire Baker, who was deputy convener of the previous culture committee, also backs an inquiry. She said: “The lack of conclusiveness in the SFRS report probably strengthens the case. The committee’s inquiry was broader than the cause of the fires and raised issues over governance, transparency, and decisions that were taken between the two fires. We felt a full public inquiry was needed.”

The 2019 committee found the Glasgow School of Art board had not given sufficient priority to safeguarding the Mackintosh building.

It expressed concern about the time it took for a modern mist suppression system to be installed, which was not in place when the second fire broke out.

Former SNP MSP Joan McAlpine, who was convener of the culture committee during the art school investigation, said: “There is very little information in the SFRS report that sheds any light on the decision-making landscape that led up to the fire, and it could be a public inquiry is the only way we are ever going to get to the bottom of that. Issues like the length of time before installing a mist suppression system, whether it should have been up and running during the restoration period, and how the contract was managed haven’t really been tested by experts, and unless there is some kind of an inquiry, then we are not going to get to the bottom of it.”

© Allan Milligan
Joan McAlpine

The Scottish Government said: “It is too early to make a decision on holding a public inquiry but careful consideration will be given to this.

“Advice and guidance for fire safety measures in historic buildings will now be reviewed following the publication of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service report. Further work on the recommendations has been dependent on the report and we are now reviewing these in detail with key stakeholders.”

However, leading art critic Clare Henry questioned what a judge-led inquiry would achieve, apart from taking more time.

She said: “What is possible and easy to achieve, is for the art school to reach out to the public, the people who loved the Mack.

“Simple positive statements. Messages of intent. An apology or two. An honest gesture. No patronising PR. No cold official bureaucratic speak. And some actual move towards the rebuild.”