When they were first opened, Edinburgh’s gleaming, brand new schools constructed by Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), were hailed as the vanguard of the future and seen as a way of ensuring generations of children were educated in schools which were fit for purpose.
But the PPPs were always controversial, with critics flagging up the locked-in contracts of the “buy now, pay later” arrangements.
However, we were told that, in much the same way as a householder buying a big ticket item on credit, such schemes worked. Except this time it was decrepit buildings, a number of which had been judged below standard during inspections, which were being pulled down, and not before time.
Now the future of such ventures is in doubt, with calls growing for direct control of building projects to be returned to councils.
Many will agree with this reaction, because the situation the City of Edinburgh finds itself in this week is unacceptable.
The inconvenience and stress to pupils, many of whom are facing important exams in the forthcoming weeks, and to families faced with making ad hoc childcare arrangements, should never have happened.
Architect Malcolm Fraser has joined the calls for procurement to return to council control. Mr Fraser has added some much-needed plain-speaking to this story, explaining why it is virtually impossible to tell how robust a building is until something bad takes place – such as happened at Oxgangs Primary in Edinburgh, sparking this saga. A school building would have to be taken apart to find any early problems in the construction process.
That is why we need 100 per cent confidence in the construction process, because the ability to make checks is limited. The build has to be right first time, with each stage inspected and signed off giving a chain of accountability throughout the construction process.
But while we consider a return to council control, we also have to remember that this does not guarantee success either.
Edinburgh’s trams are a monument to a capital project under council control which went badly wrong .
Public confidence was also shaken by the council’s buildings repair scandal which saw many householders charged millions of pounds for a large number of unnecessary and costly repairs to their properties.
It is not yet the time to make a decision on whether or not to end PPP, as tempting as this may be to some.
We still do not know the full extent of the problem, and we must remember at this stage that some of the schools were closed this week as a precaution to allow them to be fully checked, not because flaws have been found, although new problems may yet emerge following detailed inspections.
And if we find that the problem is widespread in the school estate, we need to know more about the construction process before apportioning blame.
But if we find that PPP has directly contributed to the crisis that has hit Edinburgh’s schools this week, then the process has to be put up for a full review. Public confidence is paramount when it comes to the safety of our children in schools.