Should HES Intervene in Category A* Buildings at Risk?

BEFS Director looks at the implications of two of the recommendations arising from a Parliamentary Committee report on the Glasgow School of Art fire.

The Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee published a report on the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building a fortnight ago. While the Committee has been investigating fire risk management and governance issues at the GSA they have also made recommendations on the remit of Historic Environment Scotland. While a lot of people have opinions on the fire at the GSA it is the latter that is of interest as it could have strategic implications for Scotland’s cultural heritage.

The Committee gathered evidence from interested parties in written form and through four sessions in the Parliament, the last of which included contributions from Historic Environment Scotland. The session reveals that some MSPs have the, not uncommon, misperception that HES is the custodian of all of Scotland’s listed buildings, policing everything in relation to them. One query was whether or not HES assess the suitability of owners of category A listed buildings. The HES representatives are clear on their role as guardian of the Properties in Care but explain that their role in the care and management of the other 46,000+ listed buildings is advisory and that they do not assess owner suitability.  The point that HES operate in advisory capacity is made repeatedly. The record of the session makes interesting reading.

The Committee report makes the following two recommendations specific to Historic Environment Scotland:

The Committee is concerned that the listing system employed by HES covers a very large number of properties and contains no formal mechanism for recognising that there is a smaller sub-set of Category A Listed properties that are of significant cultural and historic importance to Scotland. The Committee recommends that HES and the Scottish Government consider a more tailored form of categorisation that would provide specific protection to buildings of unique cultural and historic significance.

The Committee notes the remit of Historic Environment Scotland is to have a leadership role in relation to the conservation and preservation of historic buildings. Despite this, the Committee considers that Historic Environment Scotland adopted an arms-length approach to the Mackintosh building with regards to safeguarding it from fire. Accordingly, the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government reviews the remit of Historic Environment Scotland and considers giving it extended statutory powers to intervene in cases where there is a risk to an asset of national significance.

Only 7% of listed buildings are category A, around 3200, and the Committee are proposing that another subset of unique cultural and historically significant buildings is identified, let’s call it a category A*. They are also recommending that HES has greater interventionary powers for assets of national significance that are at risk.

While it could be argued that all listed buildings are of national significance and therefore all of the 1890 listed buildings on the buildings at risk register require HES intervention, 347 of which are category A, it may be safe to assume that the Committee is recommending greater statutory powers for the category A* listed buildings at risk. What would qualify as A* at risk? Take your pick from these asylum’s, churches, doocots, winter gardens, piers, castles, mud cottages, mortuaries and mills.

During recent discussions on the review of the criteria for listing, abolishing categories was mooted by some, what would the response be to further categorisation? BEFS own recent investigations on the theme of prioritisation reveals how challenging that is and identifying the crème de la crème of Scotland’s built heritage would likely be a thorny process.

The Committee will not be alone in wishing HES had greater powers to intervene. Arguably, such powers already exist with local authorities but, needless to say, they do not have the resources to use them. If the power were transferred to HES would it be resourced to apply them? The Scottish Government’s funding of HES continues to diminish annually, albeit healthily augmented in recent years by high income generation through ticket sales at Edinburgh Castle and Castle Urquhart. But if the Committee’s recommendations were to be accepted by the Scottish Government then the expanded statutory remit would require additional resource for it to have a meaningful impact. It will be interesting to see how the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs responds.

Then again, Glasgow School of Art was not on an at risk register so even if these recommendations had been in place, it is unlikely they would have prevented the fire of June 2018. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has yet to publish its report on the cause of the fire, a vital component that the Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee should maybe have waited for.

The full report is available here.