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‘No regrets’ on Mac fire-safety decisions, says Glasgow School of Art chief

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The Glasgow School of Art board has told a Scottish parliamentary inquiry it has ‘no regrets’ over fire-safety decisions taken on the disaster-struck Mackintosh Building

The college’s chair, Muriel Gray, and other board members appeared in front of the Holyrood committee to defended their stewardship of the Mac, which has been hit by two major fires in four years.

While admitting the school could have communicated better with residents, some who were excluded from their homes and businesses for months, Gray said the management of the building had been otherwise ‘exemplary’. 

She said: ‘I don’t have any regrets about the process. I have massive regrets that these things happened but no, I can’t in all consciousness say there’s something that I would have done differently.’

At the hearing, MSPs quizzed the board over why fire risk measures, including a mist suppression system and fire-stopping measures, were not effectively implemented.

Committee convenor Joan McAlpine pointed to two reports into fire safety at the GSA, published in 2006 and 2008 before the first blaze in 2014, which highlighted six areas that presented either a medium or high risk.

She said: ‘The two things that would have addressed that [the fire risks] – fire stopping and fire suppression – didn’t happen. So how can you stand here and say the building was safe?’

In response, Gray said the building ‘passed every regulatory test’ and that the bespoke mist suppression system that was in the process of being installed when the second fire hit was a ‘belt and braces approach’. 

Liz Davidson, the senior project manager overseeing the Mac restoration, added: ‘If it hadn’t been safe we would have not have been allowed to put 500 students in it. Like every other historic building it had issues that we, as good custodians, were asking questions about.’

But MSPs pointed out the mist suppression system was not ready, and questioned the board over its claims it did not have the funding to pay for the measure when, at the same time, it was spending ‘millions’ upgrading its campus.

‘It was an extraordinarily complex system,’ said Davidson, adding: ‘There are no public funds for bringing in over a million pound system.’

The hearing follows months of mounting criticism of the Glasgow School of Art which has faced calls for the Mac to be taken away from the board’s control.

The latest blow was the shock resignation of its director Tom Inns, who subsequently said in his submission to the inquiry that the rebuilding of the Mac should be taken over by an independent trust.

When asked by MSPs about Inns’ statement, Gray said it was a ‘minority view’. She also argued the Mackintosh building should remain a working college. 

‘Our formal view is unanimous that we are bringing back the Mac as a working art school,’ she said. ‘My personal view could not be stronger. I don’t think I could sleep at night if I was on watch when the ladder was pulled up behind me.’ 

The Holyrood committee, launched in September, set out to explore whether ‘poor decision making or flawed processes’ had contributed to the loss of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s landmark building.

It has heard evidence from a range of witnesses including Page\Park, the architects in charge of the restoration, Keir Construction, the contractors in charge of the site, as well as former GSA employees and experts.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) investigation into the cause fire remains ongoing. 

David McGown, assistant chief officer said this week: ’Our fire investigation experts continue to work alongside our police partners and through a high volume of information from various sources.

’I would like to stress once again that this is a very complex process and will therefore take time.’

The inquiry’s next session, on 29 November, will hear from Historic Environment Scotland. 

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Readers' comments (2)

  • It's unclear whether the terms 'no regrets' and 'exemplary' refer just to the Board's performance after the first fire, but it would surely be very surprising if - with hindsight - any of them were comfortable with the administration of the building at the time of the first fire, when an aerosol can of expanding plastic foam was used near a hot projector in a basement studio under the library.

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  • The second fire has much more culpability;
    there had already been a fire, so everyone should have been more alert, the 24-7 fire safety warden and alarm systems did not work,
    air ducts had not been temporarily fire stopped,
    combustible insulation was been stored on site.

    All concerned with the post first fire work should be removed, including Muriel Grey and the GSA board.

    And Yes, it should remain a working school of art.

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