Lessons to be learned from Edinburgh school closures


IT’S time to revert to a more traditional procurement method of public buildings.

That’s the view of architect Alan Dunlop in light of the recent situation in Edinburgh, where 17 schools were closed following the discovery of building defects.

The schools were built under the city’s PPP1 (Public Private Partnership) scheme and constructed by Edinburgh Schools Partnership.

Mr Dunlop, Chair of Contemporary Architecture and visiting professor at the University of Liverpool and visiting professor at Robert Gordon University, is scathing of private finance being used on public buildings.

He told Project Scotland, “It’s wrong to have financial institutions pay for public projects and, as a consequence of that, receive billions of pounds in returns over a 30-year period. It doesn’t matter what the project is, that whole method of actually procuring important structures and important public projects is deeply flawed as far as I am concerned and always has been. From a contractual and financial side of things, it’s a flawed premise but, as a consequence of that, I also think it has led to poor buildings in the case of things like schools, health centres and hospitals.

“I think it’s only now coming to the fore that not only were these important buildings poorly designed, we’re now finding they were poorly constructed in what are basic elements of building design like wall ties and header ties not being included within the structure, which is deeply concerning.

“The whole system emanates from the fact that the contractor – the person who is responsible for the development of design and construction of the building now is, in effect, the client of the design team – so their independence as professional people… is lost under this system.

“I think we have to accept as a society and as a people that there are things that are so important – things like the design of schools – that they can’t leave it up to financial institutions, private organisations and private money to create them and procure them because the consequence of what has happened (makes it) clear that model of how we procure our public buildings just doesn’t work and it’s leading to shoddy buildings and buildings which frankly look as though they are dangerous.

“We have to go back to a more traditional way of procuring buildings so that the design team isn’t marginalised and so they can maintain a proper independent and professional point of view about how you do it.”

Oxgangs, the primary school at the centre of the crisis, was built as part of Edinburgh’s PPP1 schools programme between 2002 and 2005. The school made headlines earlier this year when a wall collapsed during Storm Gertrude.

The PPP1 programme involved 17 schools built over two phases and was managed by Edinburgh Schools Partnership. ESP subcontracted the construction of the schools to a number of contractors including Miller Construction.

Through its acquisition of Miller Construction in 2014, Galliford Try has “contractual responsibility” for four of the 17 schools. The firm said it has been carrying out remedial work in those four schools and that safety of pupils and staff is paramount.

Dave Watson, UNISON Scotland’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, has also been opposed to PPP from the outset. He said, “What we have said on the Edinburgh situation is that, despite our objections to PFI, we’re not claiming that there is a fundamental problem that means PPP schools are any less safe than other schools. I don’t think that’s the case – things go wrong with construction projects.

“Essentially, PFI is a way of financing buildings. It’s doesn’t fundamentally change the way they are built, so I don’t think we would, in all fairness, argue that what has happened in Edinburgh is fundamentally down to PPP. However, I have identified four reasons where I think there is a greater risk of construction failure in PPP schemes than there are in others.

“The main one is that you don’t have a clear client/contractor split in the way you do in a conventional building. Councils don’t build their own schools, except in certain circumstances, so you would still have a contractor. The difference is that the council would be there, doing its supervisory role, or whatever it might have on site, or at least visiting pretty regularly providing that function.

“I think there is a blurring of that with PFI and that is because the construction companies almost always are an equity partner in the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) that own and operate the site so I think that there is a risk there. I think the SPV therefore leaves the construction stage entirely to the contractors because they are part of the SPV.

“The second one is the profit incentive, inevitably. There is an obvious pressure there to make profit, not just for the construction company but also for the other SPV partners so there is an incentive there to do what you can to make those savings.

“What we do know, thirdly, is that many schemes have had cost pressures very late in the projects. We know that a number of PPP schemes have had to be amended – Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, for example, ended up with probably a couple hundred less beds than was originally planned for, largely due to costs and the same is true of Glasgow schools, which had a whole range of issues with the PFI scheme in relation to lost teaching areas, staff rooms, sports facilities, late on in the projects, so there is bound to be a concern there that those financial pressures place pressure on the construction side to reduce costs.

“The last point I flag up is RIBA did criticise PFI schemes several times on the basis of design. RIBA were focusing on the aesthetics, as you would expect, but the problem I think you get with one design is that the risk is if there is a fundamental design fault in a standard design, if it is then reproduced hundreds of times you’ve got the potential for it to go wrong hundreds of times, whereas a single project doesn’t do that.”