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House of Commons Hansard
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Glasgow School of Art
19 June 2018
Volume 643

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to respond to the fire at the Glasgow School of Art.

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As the House will be aware, a fire broke out at Glasgow School of Art’s renowned Mackintosh building on the night of 15 June. The building is one of Glasgow’s iconic landmarks and is regarded as Mackintosh’s greatest work. It is rightly of global architectural significance and a unique and irreplaceable building in the eyes of many people worldwide. The art school itself is a work of art—a jewel in a city that sparkles with architectural splendour. It is worth noting that the building next door, the O2 ABC music venue, has also been affected, and it is even older and has a colourful and varied history. The art school was never a museum piece, but a living, breathing, working art school—a powerhouse of creativity and a much-loved part of the fabric of Glasgow. We can be grateful, however, that the tragedy was not worsened by loss of life, and my heartfelt thanks go out to the emergency services, particularly the fire service, who attended the scene under such adverse conditions and in the heart of the vibrant city’s nightlife.

Many people, such as myself, are still in disbelief that this could happen again after the devastating fire of 2014, particularly given the painstaking and careful efforts that have taken place to restore the building over the past years. I visited the building on 1 June as the guest at the opening of the 2018 degree show and saw the restored library and the famous “hen run”. I was struck by the love and passion of those involved in restoring the building. I am personally devastated by the fire, a fact which I communicated directly when speaking to the school’s director, Professor Tom Inns, over the weekend. My heart goes out to the school, its students and supporters, who did so much to raise funds for the restoration after 2014.

At this point, we do not know the cause of the fire, but I note that the fire service has assured us that a comprehensive and professional probe will be carried out in due course. The UK Government previously gave £10 million to rebuild the school after the last fire, and we stand ready to help again. There was never a question about the need to rebuild and restore the building when tragedy struck four years ago. The situation is far worse after the weekend’s fire, but I hope we can start with that aim in mind.

Obviously, there are real questions about what will happen next. We stand ready to work with the school, the city council and the Scottish Government. I am visiting the site and meeting the head of the school on Friday, and I will update Members when I am in a position to do so.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his comprehensive response and for the support he has given.

The loss of the Glasgow School of Art, particularly in the 150th anniversary year of Mackintosh’s birth, is a very sore loss indeed for the city. As the Secretary of State mentioned, the building is internationally significant and is held very preciously in our hearts in Glasgow. All who have visited and studied there, and even those who have not been inside, feel that the building belongs to the city of Glasgow and to each individual.

It is a catastrophe to lose the building, and my heart goes out to the staff at the GSA, to Professor Tom Inns and his staff, to those who worked on the restoration and particularly to the craftspeople who put so much love, care and attention into bringing back skills that have gone out of fashion to bring the school back to its former glory.

The Secretary of State is right to mention the vibrant O2 ABC venue, which was very much part of the cultural scene in the city of Glasgow. That will also be a very sore loss to Glasgow.

Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to the Scottish fire and rescue service, which pumped water uphill from the Clyde to try to douse the huge flames of the inferno on Friday night; the police, who kept everybody safe; and the Salvation Army, which was on hand to provide rolls, sausages and Irn-Bru to the Weegie fire crews. They did a tremendous job in reacting to the fire, too.

Does the Secretary of State agree that speculation at this time about the future of the building and the cause of the fire is unhelpful and that we should allow the experts in the fire and rescue service to do their investigations and to carry out their very detailed work, which may take some time to reach a conclusion? It is important that we get the answers and that we learn the lessons of this fire.

Will the Secretary of State support looking at all options to ensure that traders and residents of the Sauchiehall Street and Garnethill area are supported through this and are given the financial support they need? Will he look at the further detail of whether sprinklers can be made mandatory in historic buildings?

Finally, I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is offering support for the renovations, and I look forward to hearing more on that in the coming weeks. Can he confirm that he will give more support for donations coming from other sources and that he will use the Government’s efforts to bring in more money?

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The House can hear the hon. Lady’s passion for the Glasgow School of Art, which is reflected across the city of Glasgow, across Scotland and across the world. She is right that speculation is unhelpful at this time, which is why I do not support calls at this stage for a public inquiry. The investigations that would normally follow a fire and the detailed investigations that are under way should be allowed to follow their course. Of course, some of those investigations will be into the structure of the building and will determine what can happen next.

As I have said, I want to work with the school, the city council and the Scottish Government once views are formulated on how a restoration can be taken forward. We stand ready to help, as we did in 2014. I will discuss the traders, businesses and residents around the Glasgow School of Art with the Scottish Government and the council.

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My daughter-in-law is a postgraduate of the Glasgow School of Art, which is a much loved institution. Will the Secretary of State undertake to come back to the Dispatch Box when things are much clearer, so that we can get a clear understanding of what the UK Government’s undertaking will be?

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Yes, I am happy to do that. As the original questioner indicated, it is clear that it may take some time for there to be clarity about what will happen next, and I am certainly willing to come back to the Dispatch Box.

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I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) for securing this urgent question. I fully support her efforts, and I am sure all Glasgow Members will stand in total solidarity to ensure we get the best outcome possible for our city.

Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Glasgow School of Art, that magnificent edifice that dominates the skyline of Garnethill, is the epitome of what it means to be a Glaswegian. It embodies the very essence of the city’s character and soul, and is a true example of human genius. The grief I experienced after the first fire in 2014 was profound; it felt like part of our city had died that day. Now to witness an even more severe conflagration consume this precious art nouveau masterpiece has left me both angry and incredulous that it could have happened again. What on earth has gone wrong here?

More generally, this fire represents a wake-up call for Glasgow and the entire country. We need to have a much more robust approach to protecting our amazing Victorian architectural legacy in Britain in the future or we will continue to see these tragic losses mount up as buildings of these ages continue to suffer degradation. Government at all levels—city, Scottish and British—needs to step up to meet this challenge with radical and imaginative measures.

The good thing about the Glasgow School of Art is that the past four years have seen a meticulous process of understanding the building take place. The work of the architects and craftspeople has been extraordinary. We therefore have a critical mass of knowledge and understanding of this iconic building and its construction that makes it easier than ever before to restore Mackintosh’s original vision. They are geared up and more than ready to take on that challenge, and I will be making the strongest possible case that they should be allowed that chance.

In the face of reckless calls to tear the building down, what plans do the Government have to support the safeguarding and renewal of such an iconic and important cultural asset for the world? What conversations has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government on the need to safeguard the building and ensure it is appropriately restored? Given that Glasgow needs a more preventive, comprehensive strategy for preserving its ageing stock of Victorian architecture, much of which is vulnerable to fire, what plans do the Government have to support a review of the way that heritage buildings are managed and safeguarded, with fire prevention policy as a priority? What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Scottish Government on the need to set up an investigation into the safety measures taken by the contractors for the restoration works? All I would say in conclusion is that the people of Glasgow deserve roses as well as bread, and the Mack will rise again.

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The hon. Gentleman raises important points, and I know that he has a strong personal connection with the School of Art. Like those people who have been part of it, he feels this tragedy, but, as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central said, people who have never crossed the threshold of the School of Art feel it, too. I feel particularly for those craftsmen who restored the “hen run” and the library, bringing back these crafts, and how they must be feeling this week, when their work has been decimated. I take on board the points he makes about safety issues in buildings. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), who is responsible for heritage in the UK and is in his place, will also have heard what he said and we will respond specifically to that.

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As a representative of many of the students and staff of the school, and as a former frequent visitor to the ABC, this fire was a real blow to me. When the Secretary of State meets representatives of the school on Friday will he talk about ways in which the community and alumni can most appropriately help with any fundraising efforts for future restorations?

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I most certainly will do that. The effort to raise funds after the 2014 fire was tremendous. One way in which the Government can help is through Government funding, which can be a catalyst for other funding coming in. That was very much the case in 2014, and it is very much in my mind at this time.

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This was a cruel and gut-wrenching blow to the people of Glasgow, coming just as the refurbishment from last time was nearing completion. Last night in this House we demonstrated our ability to disagree with each other and have a vigorous debate, but I am pleased that this morning we are seeing all shades of political opinion in Scotland come together in solidarity with the people of Glasgow as they deal with this great tragedy. I want to ask a couple of specific questions. Yesterday, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said that it was a matter for the owners of buildings to determine whether or not to install sprinklers. What action does the Secretary of State for Scotland think the Government should take to ensure that sprinklers are installed in such public buildings? He mentioned the need for a thorough investigation. Does he agree that erroneous press speculation on the cause of the fire before that investigation is complete is unhelpful and undesirable?

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I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last point: press speculation on the cause of the fire is very unhelpful. We need to let those people who are carrying out the professional investigation get on with it. I also agree that it is important that all levels of government—the city council, the Scottish Government and the UK Government—work together, and whatever our other differences, I absolutely commit to do that. The issue of sprinklers has been debated extensively in the House in recent times. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a sprinkler system was in the process of being installed in the building, but sadly that process had not been completed.

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Glasgow School of Art has a base in Moray; I spoke to people at the Altyre campus this morning, and they asked me to express their sympathies and thoughts for everyone involved in Glasgow. What can our constituents throughout Scotland do to support the efforts to restore Glasgow School of Art?

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When I visited the School of Art on 1 June, I met some of my hon. Friend’s constituents from Moray who had raised very considerable sums of money for the first restoration. Although those fundraisers will be as devastated as the rest of us, I am sure that, given the vigour and passion that I witnessed, they will stand ready in Moray and throughout Scotland to start the process again.

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As we know, highland chieftains are very good at getting rich clan members and estates to help to pay for repairs to the roofs of their castles and mansion houses. There are some extremely well endowed art-supporting funds out there, in the US and the rest of the world; what efforts will be made to see whether they would help to pay for the restoration?

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I am sure that every effort will be made, because the School of Art has a world-class fundraising operation. It has alumni around the world and, indeed, campuses around the world—for example, I had the pleasure to visit the campus in Singapore. We stand ready to help and support the School of Art in any of those efforts, but one thing that the experience over the past four years has demonstrated is its skill and ability in respect of fundraising.

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What caused the fire four years ago? Does the Secretary of State share my general concern that, given modern safety standards, far too many fires are breaking out in large buildings in this country—for example, the London hotel fire last week—that are either undergoing or have recently undergone renovation?

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The issue of renovations has been the subject of some comment in recent days, and it merits some attention.

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Prior to my being elected to this House, I had the great honour not only of being the bailie for Garnethill, in which the GSA is found, but of having done most of my postgraduate study in the bowels of the Mack building. In resurrecting the GSA, with its critical role as a place of artistic education, what work will the Secretary of State do in conjunction with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow Kelvin and the Lord Provost of Glasgow, who also now represents Garnethill?

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One thing that was clear when I visited the School of Art on 1 June was the wish to get students back into that building to see it as a functioning building for students, and there were detailed plans about which students and courses would be taught there. I am absolutely sure that if a restoration can go ahead, the School of Art will very much want the building to return to being a living, breathing art-school building. I will certainly do everything that I can to support that.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments and the cross-party nature in which this tragedy is being approached. Does he agree that the craftspeople, artists and performers who often perform at the O2 ABC need to be supported with specific funding, along with local shop owners? In the short term, before the big fundraising efforts take place, what can he do to ensure that they are specifically supported?

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I am happy to look into the detail of that specific point, because it is relevant. I understand that several events that were due to take place have been rearranged and will go ahead at other venues in Glasgow. I am happy to take forward any specifics that flow from the hon. Lady’s question.

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The sense of devastation is felt so keenly in Glasgow because Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s work has touched our lives in many different ways—for example, I have been to the weddings of my sister and some of my best friends at the House for an Art Lover. The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society is based in another of his masterpieces, the Queen’s Cross church, which is just around the corner from my constituency office. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the society is included in any communications or information flows that the Government initiate?

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Yes, I am happy to do that. As a previous contributor said, it is a great irony that Mackintosh’s 150th anniversary was only on 7 June, when we saw, through the worldwide celebrations, how relevant he remains around the globe.

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Mackintosh once lived in a house just three doors down from where I currently live, but the Secretary of State will know that that is not the only place we can learn about Mackintosh: an exhibition is on right now at Kelvingrove Art Gallery, and it is open until the middle of August so that people can learn about his work. Will the Secretary of State encourage everybody to go and see it?

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I most thoroughly encourage everyone to go along to that Mackintosh exhibition in Kelvingrove and, indeed, to visit any of Mackintosh’s other properties, if they have not done so, or attend the Willow Tea Rooms in Sauchiehall Street.

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I agree with and associate myself with the remarks that everyone has made about the heartbreaking scenes on Friday night. Does the Secretary of State agree that the creative arts and creative industries can find young people work in a way that conventional industry cannot? Will he take that into account when he considers what Government funding will be available?

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We do not always agree, but I do believe that the creative industries are a much undervalued part of our economy. They have played a huge part in Glasgow’s regeneration and are an enormous part of Edinburgh’s success as a global festival city, and they merit more attention.

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Last year, some Members from Glasgow were given a tour of the painstaking restoration of the Mackintosh building by the School of Art’s director, Professor Tom Inns, who told us how the team who had been involved in the restoration of Windsor castle had offered their advice. Will the Secretary of State join me in thanking the international teams that are appearing to offer their advice, both practical and financial? Like the people of Glasgow, we are not kept down for long, and nor will be the Mack.

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The hon. Lady ends her question with a very good sentiment, and I echo it fully. The School of Art has been able to draw on worldwide expertise and to develop and see through skills that were not previously exercised, and it stands in a good position to know what would be needed in a future restoration, although the scale of this restoration would obviously be much greater than the previous one.

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I am someone who delivered to Glasgow for 25 years as a postal worker, and the Mackintosh building was one my favourite buildings to deliver to. Will the Secretary of State not only deliver on the promise that he has just given to re-fund the building, but bear in mind the students and workers in the building?

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One of the issues that I will discuss with Professor Inns and others is students, workers and the current capacity, because although the Mackintosh building was in effect destroyed, the School of Art’s principal building was also badly damaged in terms of its operability. We want to discuss those issues and how they can be most helped in that regard.