A collapsed wall at one school and the discovery of defects in 16 others shows that corners were cut on many privately financed public buildings
Schoolchildren arriving at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh one morning in late January were confronted with a terrifying sight.
A huge section of the exterior wall made up of hundreds of bricks had collapsed onto the path below – a collapse of tonnes of material which would have surely killed anyone beneath. As luck would have it, the trigger for the collapse, Storm Gertrude, hit during the night rather than during the school day and no one was harmed. It is hard to believe it of Britain in 2016, but it was luck and only luck that the nightmare scenario of schoolchildren wiped out by their own poorly built school was avoided.
After further schools built by the Edinburgh Schools Partnership in 2005 under a PPP contract were closed last week, following the discovery of similar building defects at 16 other schools, AJ critic Ellis Woodman was moved to ask rhetorically on Twitter: ‘Oxgangs Primary School: Ronan Point of the public private partnership?’ While the answer to that question is no, it is so only because the 1968 Ronan Point collapse killed three and Oxgangs mercifully killed none.
We care less for making things and care most for financial processes
Edinburgh’s 30-year PPP was signed with Amey and Miller Construction in 2001, partially funded by the Bank of Scotland and the European Investment Bank, and is costing £540 million over that period. This arrangement and the wider PPP/PFI mode of procurement grows ever more tarnished by the day but, given that Edinburgh council boss Andrew Kerr has said that the defects at his city’s schools are caused by ‘constructor problems’, does this sorry state of affairs actually mean anything for design?
Of course it does. While the immediate cause of the problems at Oxgangs and at least one other school – St Peter’s – is an absence of wall ties, there is quite clearly a wider and more systemic issue. To put it simply, corners have been cut on many PPP and PFI schemes.
As architect Malcolm Fraser pointed out on Radio 4’s Today programme last week, consideration for safety in school buildings goes hand-in-hand with consideration for other important things like daylight, access to playgrounds and walkability.
‘We care less for making things and care most for financial processes,’ he said. ‘We’ve forgotten the sheer joy of making a building in which pupils take delight in learning.’
Fraser was speaking from experience. In early 2007 he resigned as deputy chairman of watchdog Architecture and Design Scotland amid concerns that schools being built using private finance were of ‘catastrophically poor’ design.
As well as investigating the structural integrity of these schools, Edinburgh council should be asking basic questions about where all its money is going and how such shameful and shoddy school buildings ever came about.
Hellman’s cartoon on the Edinburgh school defects