Exclusive:Scottish schools RAAC concrete: Emails reveal how Scottish Government and councils were warned about weak RAAC concrete

Fire brigade chiefs and West Lothian Council ‘flagged concerns’ more than a year ago

Emails have revealed how the Scottish Government and local councils were warned about the dangers of weak RAAC concrete more than a year ago.

The memos show the fire brigade had contacted the Holyrood Government by July last year to raise awareness of the risk of “structural collapse” in public buildings containing reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete (RAAC).

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A Government official forwarded the briefing to council colleagues on July 8, 2022, and asked: “Do you know if there has been any work done to identify schools with RAAC in Scotland?”

Emergency surveys of West Lothian Council properties were carried out in the wake of the discovery of RAAC.Emergency surveys of West Lothian Council properties were carried out in the wake of the discovery of RAAC.
Emergency surveys of West Lothian Council properties were carried out in the wake of the discovery of RAAC.

But despite the warning, councils were only able to confirm to the Government on Friday evening last week – more than a year later – that 35 schools in Scotland contained the potentially dangerous material.

The Scotsman has also learned that the chief executive of West Lothian Council wrote to the head of local authority umbrella body COSLA in June 2021 to ask that all councils be alerted to the “public health and safety" challenges posed by RAAC.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said the emails showed how “ministers didn’t listen” when bodies were “sounding the alarm”, meaning “a year's head start has been squandered”.

RAAC became one of the biggest issues in the UK last week after the Westminster Government ordered the closure of more than 100 schools in England, just days before the start of the new term. No schools have been closed in Scotland, but ministers have insisted “mitigations” have been put in place to ensure safety.

The Scottish Government was saying as recently as Friday morning last week that it was still working with local authorities to “fully understand the presence of RAAC across the school estate”. However, it has emerged that West Lothian Council agreed more than two years ago to warn other local authorities of the dangers posed by RAAC.

Councillors took the unusual action in June 2021 after being left with a £6 million repair bill to fix buildings with RAAC, including the Lanthorn Centre in Dedridge, Livingston, Whitburn community centre and Balbardie Primary school in Bathgate.

In a letter seen by The Scotsman, the council’s chief executive Graham Hope wrote to Sally Louden, then chief executive of COSLA, on June 25, 2021.

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He said: “On behalf of West Lothian Council I am writing to you to request that all councils in Scotland be alerted to these problems as they may be unaware of the difficulties arising from the use of reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete and the challenges imposed, particularly on the grounds of public health and safety.”

Emails released under Freedom of Information (FOI) laws also show that in July last year, an official at Fife Council recalled the warning from West Lothian Council in a memo sent to four Scottish Government officials, and others from Falkirk and Perth and Kinross councils.

“Colleagues at West Lothian previously flagged concerns about RAAC components in some of their schools – I'm not aware if other councils have had the same issues,” the unnamed officer said.

They were responding to a memo from a Scottish Government official earlier on the same day in which a briefing from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) was shared.

The Government e-mail said: “We are contacting you in your respective roles on the SHOPS [Scottish Heads of Property Services] and ADES [association of directors of education Scotland] resource networks. The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has approached the SG in relation to Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (please see the below SFRS article).

"We understand that the expectation is that the hazard identification will form part of the normal workplace risk assessment regime under Health and Safety legislation. Therefore, do you know if there has been any work done to identify schools with RAAC in Scotland?”

The fire service briefing said “hazards to consider” in relation to RAAC included “structural collapse affecting hospital services, including oxygen supplies”, the “prevalence of asbestos in buildings of this age”, and that the “likelihood of structural collapse increases if RAAC is exposed to heat and water”.

Responding to the emails, Mr Cole-Hamilton said: "These documents suggest that Government officials were made aware of the risks posed by RAAC more than a year ago. Both West Lothian Council and Scottish Fire and Rescue were sounding the alarm, but it seems like ministers didn't listen.

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"That's a year's head start that has been squandered rather than using it to make buildings safe and put in place a national fund to help remove this concrete from public spaces.

"We need a list of public buildings which contain this dangerous concrete and a ministerial statement explaining why the Government chose not to act despite the warnings."

When asked about RAAC, the Scottish Government previously insisted that building safety was “a matter for the owner”, which would be individual local authorities in the case of schools, while highlighting that health and safety legislation was not devolved to Holyrood.

By the end of last week, however, it was promising to “continue to work closely with them in their response to the challenge”.

In England, the Local Government Association (LGA) and the Department for Education (DfE) contacted all school building owners in late 2018 to draw their attention to the failure of a flat roof constructed using RAAC.

Iain Morris, SFRS acting director of asset management, confirmed 14 community fire stations in Scotland had been impacted, including sites at Crewe Toll, Cumbernauld and Dalkeith.

He said: "The safety of our staff is paramount and immediate action was taken as soon as defects to the roof construction were identified in 14 of our sites in 2019.

"We have in place temporary supports to reinforce areas of the roofing and we have maintained operations from these locations. We will continue to monitor these measures.

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"In most cases, the safest and most cost-effective solution is to rebuild. However, as a service we do not have the necessary capital budget provision to rebuild these locations or meet the continuing capital backlog to maintain or upgrade our estate."

Schools in England were told to carry out surveys for RAAC in December last year and NHS boards in Scotland were advised to order reviews in February 2023.

Some councils in Scotland had followed West Lothian in taking early action, with East Lothian Council closing the Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh and then part of Preston Lodge High School in Prestonpans in May.

However, several authorities said they were still reviewing whether RAAC was in schools when contacted by The Scotsman in June, despite the warning from West Lothian Council two years earlier.

On Sunday, economy secretary Neil Gray said: “At the moment, there is no immediate risk to people using these buildings and that is why we continue to support our local authority partners, NHS boards and others, that have RAAC in their buildings to ensure that remains the case, and if there are issues to be resolved, that mitigations are taken to ensure people’s safety.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “This is an issue that we are taking very seriously and reviews of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) in property have been conducted by local authorities, NHS Scotland and other public sector organisations for some time so we can all fully understand the scope of RAAC, including in the school estate.

“Councils have sought to reassure ministers that in the small number of schools where they have identified RAAC, appropriate mitigation plans have and will be put in place to ensure the safety of pupils and staff, including ensuring that pupils are not being taught in parts of buildings at risk due to RAAC. Ministers will continue to work closely with local authorities in their response to the challenge.

“The Education Secretary wrote to the UK Government Secretary of State for Education to seek urgent clarity on any new technical reports, assessments or third-party advice which had led to the change in approach in England. Thus far, no reply to this letter has been received.”



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