PFI not to blame for Edinburgh school wall collapse, report finds

10 Feb 17

A wall collapse last year at an Edinburgh primary school built under the controversial Private Finance Initiative funding system was not the fault of PFI, an independent report has concluded.

But the report, by Northern Irish architect John Cole, lays heavy responsibility on Edinburgh City Council for failing to provide adequate supervision or scrutiny of the contractors and sub-contractors building the school for the council.

“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 says. Edinburgh Council has promised to learn the lessons of the episode.

Seventeen PFI-built schools across the city were closed following the collapse of the wall at Oxgangs Primary School, which pitched nine tonnes of masonry into the school playground. Teaching for more than 7,500 pupils was disrupted for several weeks.

The collapse was due, the report confirms, to faults in the metal ties that attached the outer brick facing of the gable wall to the core structure of the building. The ties at Oxgangs – and, it later emerged, another PFI-built school – were variously missing, of the wrong type or poorly fitted.

“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,” Cole says. “One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

All the affected schools were built with PFI/Public Private Partnership funding in the previous 15 years, under the auspices of Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), a consortium that included Bank of Scotland and the principal building contractors, Miller Construction, now part of Galliford Try.

In the immediate wake of the incident, accusing fingers were pointed at the PFI/PPP model, which was never popular in Scotland and which the Scottish Government has since sought to replace through alternative funding structures pioneered by the Scottish Futures Trust.

The report rejects the idea that PFI cost cutting was directly to blame, but says that the collapse was due to poor quality construction, exacerbated by a lack of adequate scrutiny on the part of the council and ESP. The finance model itself was not responsible, the report says.

Nevertheless, housing minister Kevin Stewart said he was “very concerned” by the findings and Larry Flanagan, head of Scotland’s biggest teaching union, said that PFI/PPP funding had left a legacy of “too many inferior buildings, for which we will all be paying a vastly inflated price for decades to come.”

Andrew Kerr, chief executive of Edinburgh Council, said: “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.”

  • 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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