‘Wasteful’ deals under scrutiny as checks continue at city’s schools

Work continued on Oxgangs Primary School yesterday. Picture: Toby Williams
Work continued on Oxgangs Primary School yesterday. Picture: Toby Williams
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THERE are growing calls for burdensome private finance contracts to be renegotiated after one of the country’s largest councils was forced to order the closure of 17 schools.

Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said ongoing maintenance contracts put in place under public-­private partnerships (PPPs) had become a “major drain” on education budgets, while architects’ professional body RIAS said the deals were a “dripping roast” for contractors.

WIth PPP, there’s always been too much focus on the private profit of the building company … rather than an extremely high-quality job

NEIL BAXTER

Authorities across Scotland are carrying out urgent checks after Edinburgh City Council ordered the closure of all its PPP1 schools.

It said it was “demanding answers” from contractors after remedial works at Oxgangs Primary School had uncovered new issues relating to the building’s construction.

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Scots councils urged to check schools after Edinburgh closures

The decision, which was made late on Friday, has affected around 9,000 pupils – many of them sitting key exams in the next few weeks – and left parents struggling with childcare arrangements.

Last night families in Edinburgh had still not been given a clear picture of when schools might reopen. It is understood two – St Peter’s and Oxgangs primaries – could be shut for a couple of weeks.

Edinburgh University and some local churches all offered the use of their facilities in an effort to help.

The EIS said it was now time to re-negotiate maintenance contracts put in place for the running of PPP schools, while RIAS called for improvements in the way public contracts buildings are procured.

Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, said a motion would go before the union’s AGM in June calling for PPP and private finance initiative (PFI) contracts to be re-negotiated.

Mr Flanagan said: “There needs to be an inquiry into how we’ve got to a situation where buildings which appear to be unsafe are being approved and built, with people working in them for a number of years.

“Our view is that although the attraction of the whole PFI project was that schools were built more quickly, the downside has been that all councils which enter into it are still paying through the nose around the maintenance contracts.

“All of these [construction] companies are making their money on these maintenance contracts and a significant part of education budgets are still paying for these projects.

“Most of them were negotiated pre-austerity and they’re a major drain on local finances. We think they should be re-opened and looked at again.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon chaired a meeting of the Scottish Government’s resilience committee on Saturday following the announcement that 17 Edinburgh schools would remain closed “indefinitely” following the Easter holidays.

Glasgow City Council said further checks would be carried out on its schools this week after initial re-assurance was provided by its PPP contractor, 3Ed.

Local authorities across Scotland built schools using the PPP model before the SNP government set up the not-for-profit Scottish Futures Trust in 2008.

Neil Baxter, secretary of RIAS, said it was now time to return to traditional methods of procurement for major public buildings.

He said: “The fundamental flaw in much PPP procurement is that there’s always been too much focus on the private profit of the building company and a bias in favour of their making money, rather than an extremely high-quality job. Something that was seen as expedient and cost-saving by public authorities has been proven to be an enormous and hugely wasteful abuse of public funds.

“Edinburgh is not the worst. There are shocking instances elsewhere of processes where PPP has created very, very bad buildings which are then on a long-term maintenance contract at a premium price. Because they are such bad buildings – and I’m thinking in particular about school buildings – the kids react against that and vandalise the buildings, the repairs then have to be carried out by the original offending contractor, who by dint of doing something really bad has created a ‘dripping roast’.”

Last night, Edinburgh Council chief executive Andrew Kerr said: “The safety of children and our staff is our main priority and I’m simply not willing to compromise on this.

“I fully recognise the significant inconvenience to parents caused by these closures but I am sure they will understand why we had to take these steps.

“Officers are continuing to work on contingency arrangements and we will provide regular updates to parents and carers as and when further information becomes available. I am extremely grateful to those partner organisations who have come forward with offers of assistance and accommodation.”

Education chiefs said surveys are focussing on secondary schools as a priority, as pupils prepare for exams.