School closures: Sturgeon calls for inquiry into PPP deals

FIRST Minister Nicola Sturgeon has called for an inquiry into controversial private finance deals after 17 Edinburgh schools were closed amid safety fears.

Structural surveys are under way at Gracemount High School. Picture: contributed

Thousands of students across the city remained at home yesterday as structural surveys took place at ten primaries, five secondaries and two special schools built under a public private partnership (PPP).

Last night it emerged a fund registered in a tax haven owns a 20 per cent stake in the schools alongside investments in schools in Glasgow and South Lanarkshire.

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The John Laing Infrastructure Fund (JLIF), which has its registered office in Guernsey, also owns the Forth Valley Royal Hospital in Larbert, Falkirk.

Craigmount High School. Picture: TSPL

A JLIF spokesman last night said the company pays tax in the UK.

Concerns about the schools were first raised following the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School.

Remedial work taking place last week uncovered new issues relating to the school’s construction.

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School closures: Structural fault confirmed in two high schools
Craigmount High School. Picture: TSPL

Edinburgh City Council yesterday said it had identified similar issues at a number of other schools that had been surveyed.

It has now drawn up contingency plans to ensure all primary and special school pupils will be back in schools by Monday of next week.

S4, S5 and S6 pupils from Firrhill, Drummond and Royal High Schools will be able to return to their own schools tomorrow.

But Ms Sturgeon said there was a case for a “longer-term inquiry” into the construction of the Edinburgh schools after immediate problems had been resolved.

The Unite union joined calls for a review of PPP and private finance initiative (PFI) projects, describing the closure of the Edinburgh schools as a “national scandal”.

Ms Sturgeon told the BBC: “These were schools built ten or more years ago under a system of PFI that at the time people, including the SNP had real concerns about – concerns being that these contracts prioritised private profit over quality and the interests of pupils.

“If it turns out that this a legacy of those PFI projects, then there will be big questions for those who were in charge at the time to answer.”
Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland, has already called for a review of all PPP contracts, while the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland said maintenance deals put in place for the buildings had become a “dripping roast” for contractors.

Local authorities across Scotland are now carrying out checks on schools built under PPP, the funding mechanism used before the establishment of the Scottish Futures Trust in 2008.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Parliament – where daily business is currently suspended ahead of next month’s Holyrood election – has offered to help Edinburgh City Council accommodate any displaced pupils.

Mary Alexander, Unite deputy Scottish secretary, said: “The closure of the schools in Edinburgh is a national scandal but it could be the tip of the iceberg.

“For years trade unions have highlighted the financial burden caused by PPP/PFI and the potential for cost-cutting measures by contractors as they try to skim-off as much cream as possible from the taxpayer.”

The PPP schools were built under previous Labour-Lib Dem governments.

But the Scottish Conservatives yesterday accused the SNP of ignoring calls to make schools submit building reports as part of l inspections.

The Tories said they had asked three times over the last two years for schools 
to prove their buildings were up to scratch, as well as the quality of education provided, as part of the inspections regime.

Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said: “It’s unprecedented to have so many schools closed down at once, and at such a critical exam time for students. This demonstrates the seriousness of the situation.”

In response, an SNP spokesman said: “This is just bare-faced cheek from the Tories who invented PFI schemes in the first place before Labour and the Lib Dems embraced them with open arms.

“What children and parents need is action - which is why the SNP and the Scottish Government will support the children and parents of 
Edinburgh by working with the council and offering our help.”

A JLIF spokesman said: “JLIF pays tax in the UK and its UK shareholders pay their usual tax on dividends and capital growth. All projects owned by JLIF pay tax in the countries in which they are based.”