School closures: Call for end to ‘bizarre’ building deals

Malcolm Fraser. Picture: Greg Macvean
Malcolm Fraser. Picture: Greg Macvean
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One of Scotland’s leading architects has called for the procurement of school buildings to be returned to Scotland’s councils amid criticism of the funding mechanism set up to replace the private finance initiative (PFI).

Thousands of pupils in Edinburgh still do not know when they will return to classrooms as contractors continue to carry out safety checks on schools built under a public-private partnership (PPP).

Architect Malcolm Fraser yesterday joined calls for councils to be given direct control of commissioning school building projects, branding the current funding setup as “PFI lite”.

The SNP government scrapped the PPP model in 2008, replacing it with the non-profit distributing (NPD) Scottish Futures Trust (SFT), an independent company.

But Mr Fraser, who quit as deputy chairman of Scotland’s design watchdog in 2007 in protest over poor quality PFI schools, said he remained concerned with the current financing model.

He said: “I’m not happy with it. In many respects it’s just PPP lite and I think the Scottish Government’s Hub contracts for the provision of public buildings are really concerning, too.

“They are dividing the country up into mega regions and awarding monopolies to exactly the same big contractors which will probably end up being partly owned offshore.

“The correct way to do things is for local authorities to be empowered to commission good buildings and responsible for their delivery, instead of these bizarre financial deals.”

The Scotsman revealed yesterday the Guernsey-registered John Laing Infrastructure Fund owns a 20 per cent stake in the Edinburgh PPP schools. The fund said it paid tax in the UK, despite its registered office being in a tax haven.

Mr Fraser said there had been “shoddiness” in the financial methods used to procure PPP schools, as well as in the level of design.

He added: “The processes of creating PPP are really there to enrich bankers and lawyers on the way. They seem to regard the actual making of the building as secondary at best.”

Urgent repairs are expected on four school buildings in Edinburgh after an external wall partially collapsed at a city primary during high winds earlier this year.

A structural problem found at Lourdes Primary in Glasgow four years ago was the same as the fault discovered last week at the Edinburgh schools, it emerged yesterday. Miller Construction was involved in both cases.

Meanwhile, thousands of pupils in Edinburgh remain without a school to go to and a foodbank has reported parents using their services for the first time.

Offers of support to accommodate pupils have come from organisations including Hibernian Football Club, the Scottish Parliament and NHS Lothian, as well as various community groups.

Edinburgh University yesterday offered study space spread across 100 rooms at its campuses in the city.

Andrew Kerr, chief executive of Edinburgh City Council, said: “We have now put in place alternative arrangements for 3,300 pupils, including as a priority all senior pupils in S4, S5 and S6 sitting exams in the near future, which has been a huge logistical exercise.

“Work is continuing to identify alternative options for other primary, special and S1 to S3 pupils.”

Barry White, chief executive of the SFT, said: “NPD is very different from PFI – it has seen improved procurement and better design through the use of reference designs worked up by the public sector.”