Schools RAAC concrete crisis adds to feeling that everything is going wrong in Rishi Sunak's Britain - Ian Swanson
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It was former Chancellor George Osborne's favourite soundbite – when he wanted to denounce Labour for its handling of the economy he accused them of failing to "fix the roof while the sun was shining".
But now the vivid attack has come home to roost. During their years in office, the Tories have literally failed to fix the roofs in hundreds of schools and other public buildings across the country despite warnings about the dangers of cheap Reinforced Autoclave Aereated Concrete (RAAC).
The RAAC crisis, which broke just before schools in England went back after the summer holidays, has seen schools forced to close south of the border, temporary classroom units drafted into school playgrounds here and NHS buildings named as being at “high risk” of having the dangerous concrete too.
When David Cameron and George Osborne came to power at the head of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2010, one of their first austerity cuts was to axe Labour's £55 billion Building Schools for the Future programme, resulting in improvement plans for more than 700 schools being scrapped. And Rishi Sunak took a similar approach after he became chancellor in 2020. Schools minister Nick Gibb has confirmed that his department put forward a bid to rebuild 200 schools a year, but Mr Sunak would only agree funding for 50 a year.
Now, as Prime Minister, he faces having to pay the price for his party’s long record of underfunding school maintenance. The emergency closure of schools means serious inconvenience for parents and in some cases a return to the learning at home which they thought they’d left behind after Covid. It could hardly have been a worse start to the parliamentary session for a leader who knows he has little more than a year before he must face the electorate.
And it feeds into a depressing feeling that nothing is going right, a general sense that Britain isn't working any more, that people can no longer rely on basic things. Thirty years ago, Tory prime minister John Major was at the centre of a similar spiral of despair. After the one and only time that the UK’s most famous horse race was declared void and as a Scarborough hotel collapsed in a landslip, the then Labour leader John Smith pointed to Mr Major and said: “There he is, the man with the non-Midas touch, Prime Minister of a country where the Grand National doesn't start and the hotels fall into the sea."
Today’s catalogue of everything going wrong includes long hospital waiting lists and problems getting to see your GP; thousands of passenger flights cancelled without warning because of a glitch in the air traffic control system; councils in England going bankrupt and having to impose even more cuts than before; the government’s failure to resolve the rail dispute, meaning train travellers resigning themselves to repeated strikes as a way of life; and pubs and restaurants having to cut their opening hours because they can't recruit enough staff after Brexit. Add to that soaring food prices and higher energy bills making life more of a struggle and the picture is bleak.
With probably just over a year to go until the general election, Rishi Sunak needs a lot of sunshine if he's going to fix those roofs.