Edinburgh PFI schools close over safety concerns

11 Apr 16

An estimated 9,000 pupils in Edinburgh are without lessons in the run-up to exams season after 17 schools, all built within the last 15 years under a controversial public private partnership funding model, were declared potentially unsafe.

It follows the partial collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School during a storm in January. Header ties, metal brackets securing the exterior walls to the building framework, were found to be missing after the collapse, a discovery subsequently repeated at another school.

Edinburgh City Council then ordered the immediate closure of all schools built by the Private Finance Initaitve consortium Edinburgh Schools Partnership – five secondaries, ten primaries, two special needs schools, plus a neighbourhood centre – pending full safety surveys. The Scottish Government has also asked councils across Scotland to check any schools built under similar circumstances.

ESP, which includes Bank of Scotland, could now face a multi-million pound clawback of PFI fees from the council, which has accused it of letting down the city’s children, parents and staff.  The consortium, meanwhile, has acknowledged the “completely unacceptable” building standards in the schools, which were built by one of its partners, Miller Construction, now owned by Galliford Try.

First minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a weekend meeting of the Scottish Government’s emergency resilience committee, and education secretary Angela Constance urged employers to be flexible in helping parents meet the sudden unexpected childcare needs. She said: “The immediate priority is to ensure that everything is being done to support children."

Edinburgh Council’s chief executive Andrew Kerr said he hoped parts of some of the schools might be reopened later this week. Andrew Burns, the council leader, said the authority had had no option but to put children’s safety first: "Clearly, we have every right to expect these schools to have been built to a good standard,” he said. “We now know this isn't the case."

The PFI/PPP model, introduced under John Major but expanded under Labout governments from 1997, always attracted particular criticism in Scotland. The present Scottish Government abandoned it in favour of new structures for attracting private investment in public infrastructure, notably the non-profit distributing model, developed through the Scottish Futures Trust.

In the wake of the Edinburgh closures, Larry Flanagan, leader of Scotland’s biggest teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland, demanded a review of all PFI/PPP deals across Scotland.

He welcomed the priority given by the council to children’s safety, but added: “We must also question how such significant defaults could escape normal building control scrutiny and we believe it is now necessary for an urgent review of all PPP/PFI contracts, including the terms of the private maintenance contracts which are often both expensive and extremely restrictive."

  • Keith Aitken
    Keith Aitken

    covers Scottish affairs for Public Finance from Edinburgh. He was formerly economics editor and chief leader writer on The Scotsman and now has a busy freelance career as a writer, broadcaster and event chair.

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