Bad bureaucracy burns buildings

by | 4 May 2022

The razing of the Mackintosh Building at Glasgow School of Art is yet another case study in Scottish public bureaucracy. Its future should be taken out of the hands of the lot of them.

When there is something seemingly murky happening in public life and I can’t quite get a solid take on it I will often look to see what others whose opinions I respect think on the matter. I’m damned if I can quite put my finger on what is going on with Glasgow School of Art and its signature building ‘the Mac’ (or what’s left of it). So I have avoided commenting on it but have been looking around at the comments of others.

In fact I’ve read as much as I can find in the media and online (shy of working my way through full police reports) and it has led me to three broad conclusions.

The first isn’t very sound, I accept, but ‘something isn’t right here’. I started university in 1990 and that mean it was in the pomp of the Year of Culture and the Mackintosh revival. When I describe things about Scotland I’m proud of the pioneering design of the School of Art building is one of the things I’d often mention.

So the first time I heard that it was on fire I felt a surprisingly visceral sense of loss. But the second time someone told me it was on fire what was visceral was my anger. A fire I understand – human error, old buildings, students… Two fires, the second while under the close supervision of a contractor? That made no sense to me.

Now, despite everything I’ve read, it still doesn’t. I can’t seem to extract rhyme nor reason about what is happening and why from what is in the public domain. What I do recognise immediately is the natural state of current Scottish public life kicking in with all its usual features in place.

First, there are promises for transparency quickly followed by explanations of how transparency is actually really bad for you because it gets in the way of the ‘brilliant people’ we are constantly told have reached the top of the tree in Scotland through the merit of their personal attributes and qualities. This ideology of a ruling class achieved through strict meritocracy is like a religion to insiders.

And so of course there must be transparency so that ‘lessons are learned’ (I told you this was case-study Scottish public life). But this is the twist; the ruling classes must be left to learn the lessons and it seems that that can’t be done effectively if you’re able to learn the lessons too.

It is a universal truth that the powerful must learn their lessons strictly in private and you must take them at face value about that. They claim to be unable to learn the lessons if you’re looking over their shoulder – they consider this adversarial and counterproductive.

But this is the twist; the ruling classes must be left to learn the lessons and it seems that that can’t be done effectively if you’re able to learn the lessons too

Everything will be as it must. Every tender will be designed as it must be. Every contract will go to who it must go to. All supervision must be done in the way it must be done. Your opinions on this are irrelevant; you just don’t understand what must be done. That is why the people who must do it must be freed from your corrupting gaze. Announcements will be made when they must be made.

And, above all, no-one must pay a price (except the nation and its taxpayers). Everyone who was involved in this was there on merit and to question their merit is fundamentally wrong. So if something went wrong it is self-evident that no-one is to blame, and if no-one is ever to blame, nothing needs to be done about it. Close the curtains and move on while the grown-ups learn their lessons again.

The coverage of this horrendous affair has been littered with the phrase ‘we may never know’. It will take a degree of persuasion to make me believe this is not as some people would wish it.

My second conclusion is that, while my first conclusions is unsound because it is based on suspicion and absence of facts, the smell in my nostrils, I’m probably right about the murky nature of this. That is because from Adam Tompkins on the right to Malcolm Fraser on the left and everyone inbetween, I’ve not read a commentator on this affair who does not also seem to think something is murky. In fact the phrase ‘not fit to govern’ appears a lot.

If there is an independent voice who has written a think piece saying ‘historic buildings burn down twice in quick succession all the time, even while under the direct supervision of a corporation tasked to save and restore the building at substantial cost’, I’ve missed it.

People who know more about this affair seem to have very similar suspicions to me. At the weekend a respected architect expressed fears that rebuilding the Mac would turn into a kind of ScotWind retread, a tender we are told absolutely must take the form it takes even though it is clearly a bad idea and is indisputably not the only option.

Already in my nostrils I can sense the stories ten years from now which go ‘increasing concerns that enormous amounts of public money went into a rebuilding process which was substandard and not fit for a building of this importance but cost the same as doing it properly – and now it’s all too late and everyone involved has moved on so all we can do is learn the lessons’.

Except this isn’t a ferry; this is a crucial piece of Scotland’s cultural heritage, a building of international reputation and significance. You can’t learn lessons about something you’ve destroyed. This is a ‘one time deal’ – we fix this place properly or we might as well knock it down.

Another century for this fine building is of less weight to policy-makers than hiding their own culpability

That is what takes me to my third conclusion – the governance structures at the Glasgow School of Art may not be fit for the purpose of rebuilding it. I would have had that suspicion anyway, even if a string of respected figures hadn’t already said or written it.

But the problem was that I couldn’t see an alternative option – the idea of the Scottish Government ‘calling this in’ and taking over the rebuilding process is the one thing that seems way worse than the status quo position. It would probably be rebranded ‘the KPMG-Mackintosh building’, be made from MDF and fall down when the ribbon was cut to open it.

Which is why my third conclusion is that regular commentator on this debacle, architect Professor Alan Dunlop, has produced a solution that Scotland should grasp. He proposes that the rebuilding process be taken over by a trust made up of respected architects, planners, historical building experts and practicing artists.

If they had carte blanche to get this job done right, bypass the silly public procurement rules in Scotland and do this in a visionary way, not an arse-covering way, we might even have a building to be proud of at the end of this.

It won’t happen. Only the Scottish Government could compel this and it is forever engaged in a mutual back-covering dance with the public agencies in Scotland. Taking this out of the hands of the people who oversaw its razing would look like an admission that perhaps something wasn’t done like it should be. That is never admitted until forced into the ‘we’re learning the lessons, go away’ phase.

And that’s the final heartbreak in this whole saga. It seems to me highly likely that one of Scotland’s great architectural and cultural touchstones is condemned forever to be much, much less than it could be, much, much less than it should be. And the reason for this? Because another century for this fine building is of less weight to policy-makers than hiding their own culpability.

If anyone thinks that sometimes I obsess about good governance too much, this is why. Transparency and accountability make it much less likely that things will go wrong. Increasingly transparency and accountability when something does go wrong (rather than the opposite) makes it much, much less likely that the same thing will go wrong again quickly.

It really can be that simple; bad bureaucracy burns buildings. What it never does is burn careers. Those high-paid insiders will pour another glass of wine while they ‘learn the lessons’; we, as always, will be left in the ashes, expected to believe them.

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