Exclusive:Exclusive: Silence from SNP Government on dangerous Raac left councils turning to English schools guidance
Documents show how councils were forced to turn to English advice for dealing with dangerous Raac concrete in schools because there was “no Scottish guidance to follow”.
Bosses at Edinburgh City Council discussed the lack of guidelines for Scotland as recently as April this year following the discovery of the collapse-prone material in schools.First Minister Humza Yousaf told Holyrood last month that the Government had been “proactive” over a period of years on the issue of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (Raac), which has now been found in 40 schools north of the border.
But an investigation by Scotland on Sunday has revealed that ministers were only involved in communications relating to Raac on two occasions between 2018 and 2022.
Both occurred in October last year and related to funding bids from West Lothian Council and the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service for Raac-related repair work.
At the time, officials told Shirley-Anne Somerville, who was education secretary, that they had “first raised this issue” of Raac with local authorities in early July 2022, in an email to representatives of the Scottish Heads of Property Services (SHOPS) and Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES).
However, aside from a couple of emails in the summer of 2022, distributed via the SHOPS and ADES representatives, councils across Scotland confirmed that their senior management teams did not receive any correspondence from the Government relating to the presence of Raac in public buildings between the summer of 2021 and April 2023.
In fact, the majority of councils which responded to freedom of information (FOI) requests said their senior officials had not received any communications about Raac in that period from anyone.
By contrast, the Westminster Government’s Department for Education (DFE) was involved in contacting English local authorities about the dangers of Raac as far back as 2018.
In April this year, after Edinburgh City Council discovered Raac in two school buildings, papers released under FOI show senior officials noted: “We have been following the English guidance on how to deal with this as there is no Scottish guidance to follow.”
The remarks echoed information published by Dundee University, which said that advice aimed towards education bodies in England was being “picked up in the Scottish sector as well”.
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "The fact that schools were left to rely on guidance issued in England shows just how far behind the curve Scottish ministers were about the risks this concrete posed.
"Schools have had to go out on a limb and take decisions to keep pupils and teachers safe because no Scottish minister has been paying attention."The first minister needs to urgently announce a national pool of funding to help schools and public bodies remove this concrete.
"It's not sustainable or realistic to expect hard pressed local authorities to tackle bills that could run into the hundreds of millions out of existing education budgets."
Fears over the safety of buildings constructed using Raac were heightened at the end of August when the Westminster Government took the surprise decision to close more than 100 schools, just days before the start of term.
The reinforced form of lightweight concrete was used to form panels or planks, often in flat roofs, in the UK from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s.
Concerns had been growing about the safety of Raac over many years, with the Local Government Association and the Department for Education (DFE) contacting all English school building owners in late 2018 to draw attention to the sudden collapse of a Raac roof panel.
In February 2021, the Department for Education in England published a guide to help responsible bodies to identify Raac.
North of the border, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service began carrying out surveys for Raac in 2019, and by 2021 the material had been found in several buildings run by West Lothian Council, including schools.
West Lothian Council took the unusual step of agreeing to write to umbrella body Cosla asking that it alert all local authorities to the dangers posed by Raac, which it did in October 2021.
When it passed on the warning from West Lothian Council, Cosla also provided links to guidance sent to English local authorities by the Westminster Government.
FOI responses show that senior officials at some councils discussed the warning from West Lothian, but most authorities said they had received no correspondence relating to Raac in public buildings.
It is therefore unclear whether or not the Cosla memo was highlighted to directors at all councils.
A year after it was sent, in October 2022, documents show Ms Somerville was briefed on the issue after a request from West Lothian Council for cash support to remove Raac from St Kentigern’s Academy.
Ms Somerville noted the briefing and “asked if this is an issue in other local authorities as well”.
Officials responded: “We first raised this issue with local authorities in early July via the Scottish Heads of Property Services and ADES Resources networks.
"While we know that Raac was commonly used in construction between the 1960s and late 1980s, the only local authority flagged as currently experiencing school issues was West Lothian Council.
"Nevertheless, we arranged for information about Raac to be disseminated to all local authorities, and, at our request, the Scottish Fire & Rescue Service are contacting all local authorities in relation to this matter.”
The email from a Scottish Government official in July 2022 to representatives from SHOPS and ADES simply said that the fire brigade had contacted the Government about Raac, and included a safety leaflet produced by the service.
The official also highlighted an expectation that “hazard identification will form part of the normal workplace risk assessment regime”, and asked the representatives if any work had been done to identify schools with Raac in Scotland.
The Scottish Government still did not know which schools had Raac more than a year later, when the current controversy erupted.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.