Storm Gertrude: School collapse is the tip of the PPP iceberg

Storm damageIn January 2016, Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh made the news headlines when Storm Gertrude brought nine tons of bricks falling to the ground.  The shocking collapse identified significant defects and a further 17 schools in Edinburgh were closed with concerns for building safety.  All of the schools were built under the same public private partnership (PPP) agreement.

It has since emerged that 71 further schools across Scotland were found to have similar defects and required remedial work. Most of the work already carried out has been completed in Glasgow, including 22 schools.

Investigations into the structural failures and the legal implications of these has yet to be established.

There are concerns that other buildings built or refurbished under PPP might harbour similar problems. Investigations identified repeated defects in the buildings, each suffering problems with the wall and header ties that join together the interior and exterior walls and attach them to other parts of the building.

The scale of the problem has been described as ‘frightening’, particularly as the PPP scheme has been used to finance public buildings such as hospitals and care homes, as well as schools.  The investigations under way are focused on wall and header ties, but it is not known how many other faults might remain unidentified.

Scottish Building Federation spokesman Ian Honeyman has said there are ‘big implications’ for the building industry and a need for confidence to be renewed by those living and working in the buildings involved.

He suggested that one problem was the way completed work was ‘signed off’.  While systems are in place to identify potential issues, under the current system only one signature is required to ‘sign off’ the certification process.  Calls are being made on the industry to identify changes to the system.

Education Secretary, John Swinney MSP, has made assurances that buildings constructed after 2007 were built using safer construction methods, including steel frames.

Edinburgh council concluded following an independent report that the cause of the collapse was ‘poor quality construction’ and that the method of financing contributed to this.

The issues of time and costs must now be evaluated. The commercial requirements of bidding for a contract and working to tight deadlines can all too easily affect the quality of the design process, but when a design is replicated across numerous buildings, it is crucial to get the design right.

The government’s revised PF2 (Private Finance 2) seeks to improve on the previous model. PF2 represents a reinvigorated, revised and more efficient approach to PPP, and aims to learn from and improve on previous procurement experiences.

Some argue that the requirement of construction companies to invest their own money in a project makes the move to PF2 more expensive to deliver (the investment of private finance carrying with it a higher rate of return than loans). Perhaps this is the reason that few projects have been agreed since the introduction of PF2 in 2012.