A former SNP MSP has told how she pushed for a government inquiry into the Glasgow School of Art fires, "because it was so extraordinary that the building had burned down twice".

Joan McAlpine said that given that the institution is "mainly funded by the taxpayer" she felt that the Scottish Parliament had a duty to ask questions of its leadership, even though it did not have a statutory responsibility to do so.

It was only supposed to be one evidence session but after that initial hearing, she says it became apparent that GSA management decisions "over many years" merited further scrutiny. 

The final report by Holyrood's Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee concluded that the school did not give sufficient priority to safeguarding the building. 

The committee was particularly concerned about the length of time taken for a modern mist suppression system to be installed, which was also not in place by the time of the second fire.

The Herald: Muriel Gray, former chairwoman of GSA's Board of Governors, at the Holyrood inquiry Muriel Gray, former chairwoman of GSA's Board of Governors, at the Holyrood inquiry (Image: PA)

The MSPs also recommended that a full public inquiry should be held, something that the Scottish Government says is not off the table.

No one was held responsible

 It is understood that this would give parliament access to documents which some claim the GSA has refused to hand over.

"The Mackintosh building is arguably the most important piece of art ever produced in Scotland," said Ms McAlpine, who represented the South Scotland region from 2011 to 2021 and is an award-winning journalist and writer.

"It was destroyed on our watch and I felt our parliament should be asking how on earth that happened. 

"No one was held responsible," she added.

"Once we had an evidence session, we realised there were some important issues to explore in terms of GSA management decisions over many years, so it expanded and developed into an inquiry."


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She singles out as "compelling" the written evidence of Stuart Kidd, a world-renowned fire and security consultant with more than 40 years experience in the protection of heritage buildings.

He had visited the art school sometime between 1996 to 1997 and commented on the potential for serious fire to spread through the ventilation voids.

He wrote: "I recall the comment ‘just like a very effective chimney’ being agreed as an appropriate description of the hazard. 

"That is exactly what happened," said Ms McAlpine and not once but twice, she added.

He also underlined the value of sprinkler systems for "extinguishing and suppressing fires".

She said the SFRS report didn’t directly criticise decisions made by GSA's management or the contractors responsible for the rebuild, "but there is an implicit criticism".

"One of the questions the committee asked the school was why it expanded its estate (at a cost of £8million) but didn't install a fire suppression system," she said.

The Herald:  Joan McAlpine and Ross Greer announcing the findings of the Holyrood inquiry Joan McAlpine and Ross Greer announcing the findings of the Holyrood inquiry (Image: SWNS)

"It says compartmentation and "suitable fire safety measures" should be introduced early.  One assumes that means a fire suppression sprinkler or mist system.

"The art school said that too much of the system had been damaged and that between the two fires the technology had improved so they decided to put in an upgraded system and the one that was there wouldn't have been suitable.

"[the report] recommended a fire risk assessment be done early by an expert person and regularly reviewed. Are they saying that didn’t happen here? They stop short of spelling that out."

The Herald: Former SNP MSP Joan McAlpine pushed for a parliamentary inquiry into the fires Former SNP MSP Joan McAlpine pushed for a parliamentary inquiry into the fires (Image: Gordon Terris/Newsquest)

A Scottish Government spokesman said "careful consideration" is being given to the call for a public inquiry.

The parliamentary report suggested that Historic Environment Scotland (HES) should be given enhanced powers to intervene in cases "where there is a risk to an asset of national significance".

It also recommended that there should be a review of Category A-listed buildings with unique cultural or historic significance to discover if steps need to be taken to mitigate the risk of fire.

A spokesman for Historic Environment Scotland (HES) said most of the guidelines for the care of heritage buildings had been updated. Grants are also now available for sprinkler systems to be installed.

"The art school said they couldn't get that money from Historic Scotland (at that time) and they were right about that."

Ms McAlpine said GSA "didn't appear to have broken any rules" but that this did not mean it was blameless.

 "The regulations are based on protecting lives, getting people out of the building quickly - and obviously the priority should be protecting lives - but over and above that a historic building of international significance, you could have put additional measures in place," said the former MSP.

 "As custodians of a national treasure they should have gone above and beyond those rules."