SCHOOLS AND HOSPITALS: UNISON and LIBDEMS urge government to make schools safe now update

West Dunbartonshire refuses to disclose what the impact will be locally

‘We now have the absurd situation of government departments ringing schools days before term begins, telling them to prepare for potential building closures’

Oxgangs Primary School

This picture was taken when a school wall collapsed in Edinburgh five years ago.

Special report by Bill Heaney

Scores of schools that could be at risk of collapse have been warned to be ready for the possibility that they could have to close part or all of their buildings within days.

This will be the subject of a question in the Scottish Parliament from the LibDem leader Alex Cole-Hamilton who called on the First Minister to set up a fund to support councils and health boards in removing the material from buildings such as schools and hospitals

UNISON, the local government trade union, set the ball rolling on a campaign to have inspections on the affected schools which were were built with “crumbly” reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) from the 1960s to 1990s, with a life expectancy of around 30 years.

According to an internal government document seen by the media, the Department for Education have been hastily calling schools over the bank holiday weekend warning them to have plans in place to close school buildings at short notice, despite unions and other organisations calling for urgent action to make schools safe for many months.

UNISON head of education Mike Short said: “Since January this year the DfE and ministers have done all they can to avoid the repeated requests made to provide parents and staff with information on the true conditions of our schools.

“Instead they have found every possible loop hole to avoid publishing the information, with the minister even failing to meet his promise to parliament to publish the data before the summer break.

“We now have the absurd situation of government departments ringing schools days before term begins, telling them to prepare for potential building closures.

“It’s time for the government to get to grips with the issue and ensure our schools are safe – now and for generations to come.”

Ahead of Parliament returning,  Alex Cole-Hamilton has called on ministers to deliver a statement to MSPs addressing the presence of dangerous concrete in public sector buildings and committing to a national fund to assist with its removal.

At the beginning of the year, NHS Scotland issued a safety action notice, warning that roofs, walls and flooring made of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) are at “risk of catastrophic structural failure” which could occur “suddenly” and “without warning.”

In June, Mr Cole-Hamilton, pictured right, called on the First Minister to set up a fund to support councils and health boards in removing the material from buildings such as schools and hospitals after his party uncovered that RAAC was present in at least four health boards and 37 schools across Scotland.

In July, it was reported that pupils at primary schools in Edinburgh will be taught in portable classroom units following the discovery of RAAC. Other councils have announced work to remove RAAC panels from local schools, as have health boards hospitals.

West Dunbartonshire Council, of course, refuses to answer important questions about the number of properties in this category, keeping up its its petty boycott of The Democrat.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats revealed that two councils had indicated to the Scottish Government that tackling the use of RAAC in their buildings could cost more than £80 million.

The party also revealed that it will take NHS Scotland 6-8 months to assess the prevalence of RAAC in its boards, but that practical work to do this has yet to be done.

Mr Cole-Hamilton said:  “The sheer enormity of this problem is becoming ever-clearer. That is exactly why I raised RAAC with Humza Yousaf before the summer, and it is exactly why I am doing so again as Parliament returns.  

“We know that this potentially fatal concrete is above patients and pupils. It has already led to a school roof collapsing in England.  Huge sums of money are going to be necessary to make buildings safe.

“It is paramount that this SNP/Green government treat the situation with the seriousness it requires.

“That must begin with a statement to Parliament setting out how ministers will support cash-strapped schools, universities, hospitals and more identify buildings at risk and cope with any necessary remedial works.

“This will be a painstaking but essential process- the Scottish Government must get to grips with it fast.”

Meanwhile, experts will be looking back anxiously at a school wall collapse report which highlighted ‘lack of scrutiny’ five years ago.

Oxgangs Primary School
The problems first became apparent when engineers examined the wall that collapsed at Oxgangs Primary during stormy weather.

The report into safety failures that forced 17 Edinburgh schools to close highlighted a lack of proper scrutiny of the construction work.

The independent report criticised the council and the partnership which managed the building contracts, as well as the construction company.  City of Edinburgh Council said lessons would be learned from the report.  Nine tonnes of masonry fell at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016 during a storm.

Ten primaries, five secondaries and two additional support needs schools were shut because of concerns over the standard of construction in the city.  About 7,600 pupils were affected by the closures.

City of Edinburgh Council asked John Cole, an experienced architect from Northern Ireland, to investigate the closure of the 17 Edinburgh schools built under the PPP1 project.

In his report, he said: “The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs School was a matter of timing and luck.

“Approximately nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through.  One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

The 250-page report identified fundamental defects which led to the wall collapse:

  • not enough wall ties
  • the wrong type of ties were used
  • wall cavities were not uniform.

The report said: “It is the view of the inquiry that the primary cause of the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs school was poor quality construction in the building of the wall, which failed to achieve the required minimum embedment of 50mm for the wall ties, particularly in the outer leaf of the cavity wall. The poor quality relates to all three of the following aspects:

  • the direct laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties
  • the direct supervision of the laying of the bricks and the positioning of the wall ties
  • the quality assurance processes used by the sub-contractor and main contractor to confirm the quality of the construction of the walls

“All three issues were ultimately the responsibility of the design and build contractor in charge of the site.”

Oxgangs Primary School

The report said it was not the result of an isolated case of a rogue bricklayer, but will the authorities be taking another look now that this most recent report has emerged.

It said the substandard brick-laying was either not inspected or was ignored, that an appropriate level of independent scrutiny was missing; and that having a clerk of works may have made a difference.

Mr Cole also questions whether the drive for faster, lower-cost construction is to the detriment of quality and safety.

The report said the fundamental weakness was the lack of proper scrutiny of building work by the council and Edinburgh Schools Partnership, which managed the PPP contract.

The report also said: “There was an over-reliance on the part of the council, without adequate evidence, that others in the project structure, including those building the schools would comprehensively fulfil this essential role.”

The report also concluded that the finance model was not responsible for defective construction.

Mr Cole also highlighted a failure to properly store and maintain the relevant documents.

Damage at Oxgangs Primary School
High winds caused damage to Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh

He said closing the schools had been the only practical and safe course of action, and that finding alternative arrangements for more than 7,600 pupils was a “remarkable feat”. The impact on the children’s education had been “relatively limited”.

His report was originally expected by the end of 2016, but was delayed by several weeks after Mr Cole was advised that any organisation or individual criticised in the investigation must be given time to respond.

The schools affected by the closures were all built or refurbished as part of the same public private partnership scheme.

They were built by Miller Construction, which was acquired by Galliford Try in 2014.

City of Edinburgh Council said it was drawing up an action plan to ensure confidence in the safety of all its buildings.

An Edinburgh Schools Partnership spokesman said: “We have fully cooperated with the council and Professor Cole in trying to establish the facts of what happened with the schools affected.

“Having only just received a copy of the report, we will now take time to consider its findings in detail before commenting further.”

Andrew Kerr, City of Edinburgh Council’s chief executive, said: “The report pulls no punches and makes clear what went wrong, the reasons for it and where responsibility lay.

“Clearly there are lessons for the council and I will now be drawing up an action plan to take our recommendations forward to ensure everyone can have confidence in the safety of all of our buildings.

“The council, our public and private sector partners both in Scotland and across the United Kingdom, need to take on board the issues raised and address the concerns highlighted in the report as they have far-reaching implications for the construction industry.”

Kevin Stewart, Minister for Housing and Local Government, at the time said: “The safety of people in public buildings is an absolute priority and I am very concerned by some of the findings highlighted in this report.”

Larry Flanagan, EIS General Secretary, said: “This report issues a stark warning – to Edinburgh, to local authorities and to all those responsible for the construction and maintenance of our schools – that they must take action to ensure that all buildings are well-designed, properly-built and maintained to an extremely high standard.

“This is not an area where corners or costs should ever be cut.

“The legacy of the PPP/PFI funding model is too many inferior buildings, for which we will all be paying a vastly inflated price for decades to come. Scotland’s pupils and school staff and, indeed, Scottish taxpayers deserve far better.”

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