Scottish Government must act now on problem concrete - Alex Cole-Hamilton
At First Minister's Questions in June I asked Humza Yousaf about freedom of information requests my party had submitted about the safety of public buildings. Local authorities had told us that at least 37 Scottish schools had been constructed using Reinforced Aerated Autoclave Concrete (RAAC), a substance which has been known to fail and had been linked to the collapse of a school roof in Kent.
I asked if the government would immediately step in to help cash-strapped local authorities and health boards - because this stuff was used in the construction of hospitals as well - to find and replace this material in public buildings. The First Minister made sympathetic noises but took no discernible action and made no commitment to fund either investigations or remedial works. This was literally on the eve of the school summer holidays.
There could not have been a better time for the Scottish Government to instruct a major programme of public works both to identify and tackle this problem concrete in school buildings. Had they done so they could have minimised interruption to the learning of pupils who are still getting over the disruption of the pandemic. Instead, ministers went off on holiday.
Fast forward to last week and UK education ministers are closing English schools and classrooms after sites previously considered to be low risk “actually turned out to be unsafe”, including a beam which collapsed that had no external signs that it was a critical risk.
The first responsibility of any government is to keep its people safe. Scottish ministers must guarantee that no pupils are being taught in classrooms where this material has been identified. Hospitals will need an urgent safety plan as well. Now I recognise that as our health service is creaking at the seams it’s much harder to move patients while facilities are made safe, but the Government should at least consider reactivating preparations we made for temporary health care facilities during Covid, like the NHS Louisa Jordan.
There is also the question of how this is to be paid for. Health boards and local authorities have had their pips squeezed over the past decade and half of SNP rule. UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt stated last week that the Treasury would "spend what it takes" to make schools safe in England.
Now we need the same assurances from Scottish ministers so that local authorities, health boards, universities and more have the confidence to take this issue by the horns, get engineers in and start commissioning the works required to make their buildings safe.
The fact that the Scottish Government has not yet insisted on the closure of affected classrooms or confirmed that they will underwrite all necessary works astounds me. We don’t want to cause a panic, but we don’t want tragedy to strike before Ministers recognise their responsibilities.
Alex Cole-Hamilton is MSP for Edinburgh Western