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School’s out…

The news that seventeen Edinburgh schools are closed because of safety concerns is getting lost in the rows about David Cameron’s tax returns and Nick Clegg’s Nectar statement.

Predictably, a lot of the focus is on the way in which the Edinburgh schools partnership has been financed. Public private partnerships are seen as just another name for the private finance initiative, which is anathema to many.

Have no fear, this isn’t going to be an essay in saying that PPP or PFI aren’t all bad, because that isn’t relevant to this problem.

The problem with the Edinburgh schools isn’t about who financed them. It’s about a complete and utter lack of quality control, and a lack of accountability.

Broadly speaking, the problem so far is that the buildings, which are steel framed, have brick panels inside the steel frames that are both decorative and provide insulation and weather proofing. The brick panels need to be tied to the frame, and to each other, with steel ties. Typically, there are facing bricks on the outside, a layer of insulation, and concrete blocks on the inside.

Every wall with an internal cavity, usually, has internal ties. They’re an essential part of the structure. Without them, the outer skin of bricks, which isn’t attached to the floors and internal structures,will simply peel off the building like skin off a satsuma if sufficient force is applied. Strong winds will provide sufficient force. The building will remain standing, but be less weatherproof; the principal risk is to anyone in the area where the bricks end up.

If you can build a building without an essential structural element it’s quite simple; your quality control doesn’t work. It doesn’t matter whether your quality control is internal, or a traditional model of using quantity surveyors and agents to oversee sub contractors, if you’ve ended up with a cavity wall with no internal ties, your system has failed.

Public private partnerships were not devised by builders. They were devised by accountants and business managers with MBAs who wanted to work out not how to build the best school, but how to lock the most profit into the development process over its entire life.

With the funding for new schools centrally controlled, all too often local authorities were left with only one choice, to commission new schools via PPPs. The local authorities, all too often, were restricted to the role of specifying how many school places were required, and then offered packages of schools and services to meet that need over the life of the contract.

In the case of the Edinburgh partnership, the building contractor, Miller, was also a member of the partnership; actually, it was the only partner with a building skillset. No-one was watching them, no-one was overseeing them, and, because they were able to leave the partnership, or sell on their stake, Miller could avoid accountability over the life of the partnership. It’s easy to imagine that the partners, and the commissioning authorities (national and local) didn’t worry about the quality control issue because they couldn’t imagine a situation where the builder could exit the partnership and leave shoddy work behind.

There are huge lessons to be learned in this. One of them is that all the partners in a package have to be accountable throughout the life of the package, especially if a partner adds most value at the start or end of the partnership. Another is that partnerships need to show that they have robust quality control systems and record keeping, throughout their life cycle.

It reads like a textbook problem in procurement and project management, but for the kids of seventeen schools sitting at home because their schools aren’t safe,  it’s a real life problem which could have desperate consequences.



2 comments on “School’s out…

  1. korhomme
    April 12, 2016

    I don’t disagree with your comments about how the schools were financed etc.

    What I find odd is the missing ties. Surely any experienced brickie would know not only to use them, but the number and spacing of them? It’s not as if they are expensive. So why weren’t they used?


    • cartertheblogger
      April 13, 2016

      My drinking clan includes any number of QS’s, contractors and the like and we came up with some weird and wonderful suggestions, but mainly, probably, it comes down to the sequencing of the work, the pay rates, and cutting corners to save costs. Add in a tame QS on the job, or no QS at all but a project manager with a bonus to earn, and corners will be cut. The cost involved is not the cost of the ties – like you say, they cost coppers, but the time it takes to get levels right and whether you’re willing to pay top penny to a good bricklaying crew to do blockwork and insulation work as well as the bits the punters see.


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This entry was posted on April 12, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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