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6 September 2023

How Conservative complacency left schools to rot

In 2003 Labour aimed to refurbish all of England’s secondary schools, but in 2010 the Tories dropped the project.

By Will Dunn

No material so aptly sums up the condition of modern Britain as reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete (or Raac). By setting steel bars into foamed concrete, builders in the second half of the 20th century could create panels that were light, well insulated, fire resistant and (most importantly) cheap. It was a key material of Britain’s postwar recovery, in which the new schools, hospitals, leisure centres and town halls of the growing welfare state were erected at speed.

A landscape of boxy, modern buildings arose – a new Britain, built on innovative, new materials – but the Raac contained a secret: because its bubbled structure is porous, the steel within can rust unseen. Without reinforcement, the aerated concrete has very little tensile strength of its own. It can give way without warning. Our public realm is disintegrating.

Of the 24,000 school buildings in the UK that are now beyond their design life, 13,800 are “system-built” blocks, erected between 1940 and 1980, that were designed to last a few decades, and constructed with the cheap new wonder materials of the era: asbestos and Raac.

Towards the end of the summer holidays a concrete beam collapsed in a school, precipitating a crisis that has threatened to break out for decades. The Department for Education (DfE) wouldn’t tell me exactly when or in which school the beam collapsed, but a government source said it pushed the ministry into action because the beam had previously been inspected and deemed “non-critical”, meaning it was only thought to need monitoring. An unknown number of other concrete structures, previously assumed to be safe, were now considered risks.

On 1 September, days before the new term was due to begin, the DfE advised 104 schools in which Raac had been identified to close or to find ways to teach off-site; parents, teachers and employers scrambled to make arrangements for emergency childcare and remote learning. On 4 September the Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan, said she expects Raac to be identified in hundreds more school buildings.

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The risks of Raac have long been known; the present crisis is merely the culmination of decades of incompetence and wilful ignorance. The DfE asked the Building Research Establishment to investigate school roofs in Essex in 1994. Inspectors found “excessive deflections and cracking” in the Raac panels, which were then known to have a lifespan of around 30 years. The department warned all schools that their roofs should be inspected.

In 2003 the Labour government announced the Building Schools for the Future programme, which aimed to refurbish all 3,500 of England’s secondary schools and to build around 200 new schools by 2020. In 2010 the scheme was cancelled by the then education secretary, Michael Gove, scrapping more than 700 projects. A freedom of information request at the time revealed that Gove had taken this decision without consultation. 

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[See also: A state in disrepair]

It took until 2018 for a significant collapse to occur, when the ceiling of a primary school in Kent abruptly gave way. Fortunately, the classroom was empty at the time. In 2019 – 20 years after it first warned of the risks of Raac – the Standing Committee on Structural Safety issued an alert to national and local government regarding the material.

In 2022, almost four years after schools began collapsing, the DfE sent questionnaires to all the bodies that run schools in England asking them to assess whether Raac was present in their buildings. No one seems to have followed up – out of 21,600 schools around 1,500 have yet to complete the checks – perhaps because, since that first collapse, the DfE has been run by seven different education secretaries.

The DfE did apply for funding to repair up to 400 dangerous school buildings per year in the 2021 Spending Review, and told the Treasury that there was “a critical risk to life” if the plan was not funded. But the DfE’s permanent secretary at the time, Jonathan Slater, told the Today programme that the “top political priority… was in opening new free schools”, and the rebuild budget was halved, leaving enough for 50 schools per year. Rishi Sunak, who as chancellor was responsible for this decision, said on 4 September it was “utterly wrong” to blame him for it.

Sunak’s reputation-washing may be embarrassing to watch, but there is a little truth to it. For decades, politicians have prioritised investment in the new over maintenance of the old. Each government dreams up a new workaround – privatisation, deregulation, private finance initiative, extreme monetary policy – to make it seem as if we can recapture the historically unusual growth of the postwar boom. Meanwhile, the nation’s core infrastructure rots.

Dieter Helm, professor of economic policy at Oxford University, is one of the UK’s leading experts on the economics of infrastructure. Helm said the fundamental problem is in the national accounts: each year the chancellor stands up and announces a Budget based on the total amount of cash the government has coming in, the spending the government has planned, and its debts – all confirmed by the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts. In doing, so the government pretends it is running UK plc in a businesslike fashion. The truth is that no company would be allowed to give its shareholders such a simplistic and misleading picture of its finances.

If UK plc was a real business, it would also need to present a real balance sheet, Helm told me: “A capital account, which is about assets and liability, and a current account, which is about spending day-to-day – which includes maintaining those assets.” A chancellor should not be allowed to present a Budget that does not subtract from the government’s income – as any company would – “the day-to-day expenditure necessary to fix the roof”.

Instead, since the Second World War we have had simplistic “Keynesian accounts”, which allow politicians to pretend that there is the money to cut taxes or to lavish on new schemes (to which, Helm said, Keir Starmer seems almost as dedicated as Boris Johnson), while using ever-expanding debt to fund maintenance. “Why the hell are we doing HS2,” he asked, “when we’re not maintaining existing railways first?”

No well-established company would borrow to fund its day-to-day costs, but UK plc does. “If you borrow to do the capital maintenance, or if you just don’t do it, you’re eating your capital,” Helm said. “If you don’t fix the hole in the roof, your house isn’t worth as much… That’s what we’ve been doing, we’ve been consuming our capital assets. That’s why they’re in such a state.”

Dieter Helm said it is time for a new Domesday Book, a set of honest national accounts, compiled by the national auditors, that take into account the real – and current – value of the assets the country has, the cost of their maintenance and the obligations the state has to keep them running. This is, he said, “our intergenerational duty”.

“Success is passing the minimal test of giving the next generation a set of assets at least as good as we inherited. We’re not doing that.”

[See also: The school concrete crisis should terrify the Tories]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain