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Heritage buildings in Glasgow have reached a ‘critical’ stage

Exclusive by Caroline Wilson Senior Reporter at The Herald – 27/3/24

The Lady Artists’ Club in Blythswood Square. (Image: Stuart Robertson)

The condition of Glasgow’s heritage buildings is now “critical” and fire service cuts could lead to the loss of more treasures, the head of a conservation charity has warned.

Stuart Robertson, Director of the Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society (CRMS) said the “decay” of the world-renowned Victorian architecture that entranced Sir John Betjeman was “deeply depressing”.

The late English poet, writer and broadcaster described Glasgow was the “Greatest Victorian city in the world” and called for the Victorian Society to be relocated north from London.

Mr Robertson’s own Society rescued Queen’s Cross Church in Maryhill in 1976 – the only one built by Mackintosh – and repurposed it as an events space. Thanks to its efforts it is one of the best preserved of his buildings.

He said the demise of heritage buildings was not confined to Glasgow but a large proportion in the ‘at risk’ register across Scotland are here.

“We are certainly seeing a massive decline in built heritage due to neglect, bad planning and lack of action by councils and government” said Mr Robertson.
“You just see decay around the city. There’s no ongoing maintenance going on – I think we are at a critical point.”

“Very few councils have conservation architects now. This is of great concern because they are the frontline of protecting and enhancing the historic environment which when lost can’t be recovered.
“Currently there are 2200 buildings on the ‘at risk’ register in Scotland. A large proportion are in the Glasgow area and have been for a long time.

“Parts of Glasgow are now looking like a third-world country. It’s deeply depressing – this must change.”

He said it was positive news that the Hatrack building in Glasgow city centre has gone on the market for £2.4million. It was designed by James Salmon, a Glasgow School of Art alumnus and friend of Mackintosh, who were pioneers of the Art Nouveau style.

Mr Robertson said he would like to see a “better balance” of city council expenditure on major sporting events and the city’s built heritage.

“If you look at how important heritage buildings are for pride and for connection to the past, for bringing people into the city – there are massive benefits,”said Mr Robertson.

“All councils are struggling but you look at Glasgow it wants to put things into sport but is there any long-term legacy? “I think sport takes priority [over heritage] and I think you need to balance the two.”

Eight years ago the Society carried out the first detailed survey of its kind looking at the condition of Glasgow’s surviving Mackintosh buildings and an update is now planned.

The director said it was unable to gain access to some Mackintosh works including the Daily Record building, which is sandwiched between Renfield and St Vincent lanes.

Martyrs’ School in Townhead (Image: Stuart Robertson)

He said the Society also has concerns about the condition of Martyrs’ School, Lady Artists’ Club in Blythswood Square, which has been vacant for some time and the Mackintosh Club in Helensburgh.

“We can’t get answers about what is happening with the Lighthouse building” he added.

He described new rules, introduced last year by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) as “crazy.”
The new policy is to establish if an alarm has been triggered by an actual fire.

Crews will not attend premises such as schools, offices and places of worship unless a fire is confirmed.
The only exemption is places where people may be asleep including hospitals, care homes.

The Church of Scotland raised concerns that historic buildings could be put at risk when the policy was announced last year.

“The daft thing is the fire service is only five minutes up the road but somebody would have to come in and confirm there is a fire,” said Mr Robertson. “By that time it could be too late.

“I think when it went through they didn’t put any umbrella over heritage.”

The Society has improved its own cover with a new fire alarm and CCTV cameras that are connected to staff mobile phones. “You’ve got buildings that are at risk and will depend what system they have – not everyone is going to have what we’ve just installed,” said Mr Robertson.

Glasgow City Council said it has contributed almost £273 million to the maintenance and restoration of heritage buildings in the city between 2013-23.

A spokesman added: “It should be noted that this was the council’s contribution to the total spend on these buildings / assets, underlining the scale of support for our built heritage, and that we continue to invest in these buildings through projects such as the People’s Palace & Winter Gardens.”

The CRMS will host a symposium on the future of Glasgow’s heritage buildings on June 6 and 7.