Opinion

So many fires, so few prosecutions

by | 12 Jun 2024

With grinding predictability, the Scottish Government refuses to set up a public inquiry into the GSA fires. This sorry saga is now starting to stink more and more and Scotland deserves answers

More and more, when I come back to look at the situation with the Glasgow School of Art’s Macintosh Building I end up with one overwhelming conclusion; so many fires, so few prosecutions.

I don’t write this lightly. I have looked at and read pretty well everything that I have been able to find in the media on this affair. I’ve observed comments from legal experts like Adam Tompkins who have expressed significant concern that something seems off.

I’ve directly contacted people in the building industry and in architecture to get their take. I have been copied in to long email exchanges involving some very informed and vocally critical senior figures. Everyone so far has said the same thing; there is something not quite right here.

I’ve followed the track records of some involved. Keir Construction was in charge of the site during the second fire. Their recent track record at that point had been the wall of a school in Edinburgh that collapsed and would have posed risk to life for children had it not happened at night. After that they went on to build a sports centre in Dumfries which was so dreadfully badly built the local it has taken ten years to get it semi-functioning, including a protracted legal case against Keir Construction.

I’ve tried to follow the track record of the ultimate body responsible for this – the Board of Governors at Glasgow School of Art, but they seem to have closed ranks. I’ve tried to make sense of the process through which this is being tackled and it is obtuse and opaque and, well, stinks.

And now, with utter predictability, arrives ‘Culture’ Secretary Angus Robertson to amplify the stink by insisting that a public inquiry is utterly unnecessary given there have been various partial investigations which concluded with a shrug and the conclusion that ‘oh well, the causes and the problems that resulted here are fundamentally unknowable’.

Except no they’re not. That isn’t a feasible response. The scale of the devastation means that, no, fingering the specific culprit responsible for the second fire may never be feasible. But that’s not what a public inquiry is for – it is not to identify a single person who is to blame for everything but properly and independently to look at all the circumstances that led to it.

Angus Robertson’s suggestion that that question has been answered is so far beyond reasonable that the stink just grows. Then again, Angus Robertson is a man who has left a trail of stink behind him throughout his career so the Scottish establishment certainly landed lucky with their man.

There is such an overwhelming lack of curiosity over this affair among government officials that I can only assume that ‘who people knew’ is a significant factor in the opaqueness of this whole affair

And I really do mean ‘the Scottish establishment’ here, because I can find no other term for the main players in this. They are all big business or the kind of insider who gets put in positions of power in Scotland for no clear or obvious reason other than who they know.

There is such an overwhelming lack of curiosity over this affair among government officials that I can only assume that ‘who people knew’ is a significant factor in the opaqueness of this whole affair as well. As best as I’ve ever seen, all the GSA Board has done is withhold or trickle out information and rebut criticism with a vigour not shown in its urgency to rebuild.

Certainly the news that they’d allowed tours of the building while it was still being repaired without any form of adequate fire suppression mechanism being in place came late in the day, and while my search has hardly been exhaustive, I can find no mention of a proper risk assessment of this.

Sometimes the best way to understand a scandal is to get dug in deep to trace its moving parts, but sometimes it is better to take a couple of steps back and look at bald outcomes. The bald outcomes I can see have been clear and consistent resistance to transparency on the part of everyone involved.

I can see a building which is not being repaired at anything approaching a fast enough rate. I cannot see any sign that there will be any accountability in this. And of course I can see a treasured national monument which is in ruins after warnings of risk were ignored initially and, inexplicably to me, which was destroyed further while it was under reconstruction after its vulnerability had been exposed to everyone.

For what it’s worth, one thing I can’t see is any motive for malice here. I really can’t see how anyone has gained out of the actual fires (other than, potentially, Keir Construction if any evidence ever points to them having cut corners during the initial reconstruction phase). I can only assume this is error.

Or rather error and cover-up. It comes on the day when we learn that the Water Industry for Scotland Commission (WICS) was spending half a million quid of public money on expensive MBAs for its senior team with no legal authority to do so. This was ‘to retain staff’, but best I can tell the senior staff have only ever worked on UK public water authorities. It is really unclear to me that any of them are walking out into better paid jobs than they have.

Nope, that story is Scotland’s elite ripping the absolute pish because they can. It is one of a seemingly endless string of Scotland’s public sector elites ripping the pish out of the public just because they can. It is so ubiquitous in Scotland that if the only thing I did with my life was document these practices for you, I still couldn’t keep up.

The Macintosh Building’s existence was an overwhelming reproach to an era that doesn’t care about the legacy it is leaving

But the art school situation is different. WICS has nicked half a million quid and we’re never getting it back, but it’s just money. The Scottish Government’s civil servants have just given £8m to a company staffed to the gills with former civil servants for work which should probably cost about half a million. Again, it’s awful, but it’s just money.

This isn’t just money. In a world where there is damn little to be happy about we have three remaining things left which bring true joy. There is our family and friends. There is the astounding, never-failing beauty of nature. And there are things of wonder which previous generations have left us or which a few people are creating now.

The Glasgow School of Art’s Macintosh Building was one of them – an irreplaceable, undisputed work of great function, beauty, influence and significance. Every scratch, ever grain, every aged lick of varnish told us something about our past and our present. It existence was an overwhelming reproach to an era that doesn’t care about the legacy it is leaving.

To lose it twice is beyond what we should tolerate. To watch its recovery fail and fail again is heartbreaking. To not know why any of this has really happened is a kind of torture in its own right. That the only thing everyone involved seems to do is to provide the least information they can and oppose with vigour any drive to discover the truth is unacceptable.

That the Scottish Government is now helping with this cover-up is predictable. After all, I’ve explained many times how the government’s agencies act not in the public interest but in the interest of politicians, in exchange for little empires (which always seem to make them wealthy) and the full arse-covering service if anyone gets caught.

So I can’t say I’m surprised we’re not getting a public inquiry. Infuriated and despairing yes, but not surprised. At some point I’m pretty sure there will be a public inquiry, but the establishment kind where other members of the Scottish establishment milk the process for a decade and then produce conclusions only when it is far, far too late for any consequences.

An honest government would set up a rapid-reaction investigations team with the aim of uncovering the truth in time to actually aid this situation and certainly while anyone who really is complicit in betraying the public on this can still be held to account.

But this is Scotland, a world in which accountability is to reference a previous point at which you had been accountable which, if you actually follow it, is them saying there is no reason for them to be accountable. And it really, really stinks.

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