Glasgow must review heritage planning in wake of fire, says MP

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent
Damaged buildings in the city centre after the blaze at the Mackintosh building at the Glasgow School of Art. Photograph: Russell Cheyne/Reuters

The city of Glasgow should undertake a “radical and very honest” review of the way that it manages its heritage buildings in the wake of the devastating fire that gutted the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh building, according to a local MP.

Paul Sweeney, the Scottish Labour MP for Glasgow North East who viewed the damage to the Mackintosh building with the fire service on Saturday evening, the night after the fire, told the Guardian the city urgently needed a comprehensive and more preventative strategy for preserving its ageing stock of Victorian architecture.

Sweeney, who also sits on the board of the Glasgow Building Preservation Trust and was himself involved in the award-winning restoration of Fairfields shipbuilding offices in Govan, said: “A lot of the Victorian stock is extremely vulnerable to fire, but there hasn’t been a proper survey. No one envisaged the art school going on fire until 2014. Are we even aware of the scale of the problem?”

Referring to buildings such as Glasgow University, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and the City Chambers, Sweeney added: “It’s an incredible global legacy. These buildings were all constructed within a 30- to 40-year period in the late 19th to early 20th century, during Glasgow’s gilded age of huge wealth, enterprise and municipal ambition, but we are going to end up with a glut of problems as they age if we don’t take precautions now.”

A review should take in fire prevention policy as a priority, he said, suggesting a regular MOT-style review of safety obligations. “Then there are things like: can we promote active use of derelict land, can we avoid having de-rating of derelict properties to remove the perverse incentive on vacant buildings, like the notorious example of Alexander “Greek” Thomson’s Egyptian Halls? The city has a really poor track record of addressing these problems.”

Susan Aitken: the city has a ‘history of neglect’. Photograph: Andrew Milligan/PA

As Sweeney said that the art school fire, the second in four years, should act as “a wakeup call”, Susan Aitken, the leader of Glasgow city council, agreed that the weekend’s terrible events offered “an opportunity to do things differently”.

Aitken, who took over the council as head of the SNP-led administration in May 2017 following decades of Labour control, said: “Built heritage was a priority for us when we came into office and there’s no two ways about it that the city has a history of neglect in this area.”

Pointing out that the section of Sauchiehall Street that backed on to the Mackintosh building was already benefiting from a £7.2m plan to transform the area into a tree-lined boulevard, she said the council and business partners must act strategically to take in the damage sustained when the art school fire spread to the O2 ABC music venue. Further along that stretch of road, a full block is undergoing a lengthy demolition process following a fire that began in Victoria’s nightclub in March, and also damaged the 114-year-old Pavilion theatre, one of the city’s best-loved music hall venues.

“This is an opportunity for the council to do things differently,” Aitken told the Guardian. “The old approach to development was a bit laissez-faire and the city council has historically been reluctant to make compulsory purchase orders, but we need to look at the ABC and Victoria’s block. If we want something of lasting benefit to come out of this tragedy we need to have more control over planning. From Monday officials will be looking at CPOs and sending the message to property owners to get with the programme.”

As regards fire prevention policy, Aitken said investigations were continuing into both fires.

“We are being much more proactive about our approach to built heritage but there is a very significant cost to it and we have a lot of other commitments for our capital budget. Both the Scottish and UK governments have made offers in the wake of this weekend’s fire and I hope we can persuade them to be generous and to look beyond the Mack itself and that the momentum will gather.”

Sweeney agreed that intervention must go beyond local government. “This needs to have the commitment of the Scottish and UK governments. It’s not just a problem that exists in Glasgow, it’s a problem that’s facing all large British cities. They were all built at the peak of Britain’s industrial and economic power. We enjoy the legacy architecturally but we can’t just rely on the national lottery and ad hoc projects to fund it.”