Scotland

How Edinburgh built unsafe schools

Oxgangs Primary School Image copyright Annemarie Pearson

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

The 250-page independent report gives a clear explanation of how the walls at the schools were badly built.

There were not enough wall ties, or they were the wrong type, and the wall cavities were not uniform.

The faults caused the wall at Oxgangs Primary School to collapse and they were also apparent at the 16 other schools that were declared unsafe.

The report also makes clear there was a lack of scrutiny and supervision that allowed those mistakes to be made.

It says the finger of blame is not pointed at one rogue builder because the work was done by multiple companies and bricklaying squads.

Image copyright Scott Arthur
Image caption High winds caused damage to Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh

The problem is more significant than that, both to the construction industry and those commissioning buildings.

The report explains that City of Edinburgh Council could have employed someone, for example a Clerk of Works, to oversee the work on site. This costs money.

It goes on to explain that the assurances the council thought they were getting were not actually the kind of checks that were taking place.

This was a misplaced assumption on the part of the council.

Keeping costs down is one of the factors that appears often in the report.

It says "the procurers of buildings need to consider whether the drive for faster, lower cost construction may be being achieved to the detriment of its quality and safety".

Why did the failures in construction happen?

An issue with finding out why the buildings failed is that none of the 66 people who gave evidence to the inquiry actually built the walls. They were not the actual bricklayers.

However one of the senior staff at VB Contracts who built the walls at Oxgangs, and others, has previously said they were told to build the walls in a way that is not considered good practice.

The inside and outside walls were not built at the same time, without making extra provision for the walls to be correctly connected to each other.

At Oxgangs, the outer wall was ripped off after a storm, dumping nine tonnes of masonry into the playground.

The independent report confirms that the two parts of the walls were not built at the same time and the report lists the problems that can cause.

Some of these are problems that ultimately led to Oxgangs collapsing.

Warnings ignored

Crucially, the report also states that the architects spotted the way the walls were being built at one school and highlighted it to the main contractor who, they say, ignored it.

The way the schools were paid for

PPP was the private finance model used to fund the schools.

Although the report says that aspects of the way the private finance model was put in place put the quality of the buildings at risk, it explicitly says the private finance method of funding was not the cause of the defective buildings.

The use of private finance is an intensely political matter which will be continue to be discussed at length.

However, the author of this report says there is nothing to stop private finance from delivering a high quality building if properly managed.

The key is using best practice associated with more traditional models of funding.

Impact for the whole building industry and those hiring them

There are a number of points that may influence the way large public buildings are built in the future.

Adequate supervision of the building work is the one the report comes back to repeatedly.

It also recommends that any similar buildings are checked not just visually, but by physically looking inside the walls.

That applies not just to schools and not just to Scotland.

Parents, teachers and pupils expected the schools to be safe so they will want the lessons of Edinburgh to be learned far beyond the capital.

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