Scott Macnab: Act now to avoid Scotland’s Grenfell

The scandal over school buildings faults in Edinburgh appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Picture: PA
The scandal over school buildings faults in Edinburgh appears to be just the tip of the iceberg. Picture: PA
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The failings in building standards has left Scots schools and hospitals at the mercy of the wind, writes Scott Macnab

Public fears over the “next Grenfell” are mounting amid revelations about fire safety shortcomings in buildings across the country. But is there a danger that we miss the more immediate danger sitting right before us?

A few weeks ago, MSPs presided over one of the most shocking evidence sessions I’ve heard in a decade covering the comings and goings at Holyrood.

They were told of “fundamental and basic” failings in the way we construct buildings across Scotland, with developers and tradesmen across the board cutting corners, disregarding vital safety checks and ducking out their responsibility for public projects.

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The defects are so widespread that many buildings across the country, the MSPs were warned, are at risk of collapse from a heavy gust of wind.

And we aren’t short of wind in Scotland.

The warnings came from the internationally esteemed Irish architect Professor John Cole who had just issued his report into the Edinburgh schools scandal which saw the closure of 17 primaries and secondaries in the capital.

It followed the collapse of part of a wall the city’s Oxgangs Primary.

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Only luck prevented deaths of serious injury – but it was clear that the next tragedy could be just around the corner.

Far from the incident at Oxgangs being isolated, he warned that there have been five school walls which have collapsed in recent years. Councils and other bodies responsible are often too fearful of bad publicity to make an issue of it.

Six different main contractors were used on these buildings which, of course, accommodate Scottish children during the day. Different bricklaying subcontractors and personnel were used, but the same basic faults were appearing. This was institutionalised failure in the building industry.

We baulk in horror at the deaths of hundreds from building collapses in developing nations like Bangladesh and India, but the Cole report makes you wonder how far away Scotland is from a similar tragedy.

Bricklayers are at the centre of any building project and the revelations from Cole about the way some operate sent a shiver down the spine.

Let’s be clear, these are valuable tradesmen who can’t have an easy gig grafting outdoors in Scotland’s often harsh climate (even in the height of summer). They are the heart of our construction industry and therefore a vital cog in Scotland’s future economic growth.

But gone are the days when they generally come from apprenticeship schemes with big developers. Nowadays, they are “casuals” moving from project to project and paid by the number of bricks they lay. This means they often weren’t bothering to insert the “fiddling fittings” which are needed to secure wall ties between the cavity walls.

It was this basic defect – in schools across Scotland remember – along with missing “header ties” and joint re-inforcements which meant many walls were effectively “freestanding panels.”

“The wind could suck it or blow it down on either side,” Prof Cole told MSPs on Holyrood’s education committee last month.

Committee convenor James Dornan, who worked in the building trade before entering Parliament, was among those shocked by what he was hearing.

Was there no system of inspection in place on the work being carried out? What about the “clerk of works” who traditionally fulfilled the role on building sites checking that standards were up to scratch?

Well that role and other professionals like it has largely been downgraded in major public building projects in favour of “project managers” who are there to ensure developments come in on time and on budget.

This partly goes back to the genesis of the Scottish Parliament and the spiralling costs of its Holyrood home which went from original estimates of £40 million to more than £400m. It contributed to a loss of faith among some in the industry of architects to bring in projects on time.

But the result has been nothing short of a mass “dumbing down” of professional skills in favour of profit.

Contractors on site – effectively marking their own homework – are not inclined to look for faults which would mean having to rebuild walls and all the extra money delays that would mean, Cole warns. And the problems start long before a brick is laid on the building site.

The PPP (public private partnership) system of going to the banks and markets to find private cash for buildings like schools and hospitals (because the NHS and councils can’t pay for them up front) has seen a culture change in the way these projects are managed.

The lawyers have got involved. Now, almost unbelievably, clients – the NHS and councils – have stepped back from checking up on the hospitals and schools being built on their behalf.

They fear they could then become responsible for “contributory negligence” if faults later emerge after any alterations. The builder is left alone to get on with it and all the “perverse incentives” that come with that to avoid marking down their own work.

This lack of detailed scrutiny is a “huge gap” in the procurement system in Scotland which will continue until action is taken to stop it. The problem is likely to be widespread – not just in schools but in all buildings across Scotland. But the extent of it simply remains unknown,

Councils in Scotland were hesitant about giving information to the inquiry into the Edinburgh failings, fearful of causing alarm among pupils and parents at the schools affected.

Instead they sought to manage the situation on their own. So much for openness and transparency.

MSPs were warned that “many buildings” are unlikely to have been checked. And this is an issue which could affect any public or private building.

The Grenfell disaster only happened after repeated warnings were ignored, including a Parliamentary report going back to 2000 which revealed safety concerns surrounding the cladding for years.

The stark warnings set out by Cole about the state of our schools and buildings across Scotland make it clear a future tragedy lies at the mercy of the wind. The time to act is surely now.