Architects call for ‘urgent’ inspections into hundreds of public buildings

Oxgangs Primary School
Oxgangs Primary School

Scotland’s leading architects have warned that all public buildings constructed in the 21st century should be urgently inspected to assess the potential danger from major latent defects.

Responding to the publication of a report which raised concerns about building standards at 17 schools in Edinburgh, professional body the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) said a failure to properly scrutinise building techniques meant lives could be at risk.

Prompted by the collapse of a wall at Oxgangs Primary School in January 2016, the Cole report into the structural failings of 17 Edinburgh schools highlighted problems that could be replicated in publicly-funded developments across the country.

Neil Baxter, the RIAS chief executive, said a lax attitude to quality and safety, as contractors and developers pursued the highest profit, meant that too often buildings were not safe.

He said: “If we don’t act on this report, there is a good chance people will die.”

Mr Baxter added: “In contracts where there is too much emphasis on cost saving, there have been a number of occasions when architects have reported concerns relating to specific building safety and building quality issues.

“The system effectively builds in a conflict of interest: the contractor has an interest in terms of ensuring his shareholders are well served by profit, so he minimises cost. This may well be against the long-term interest of the client, the public, the users. This is simply not the best system.”

RIAS President Willie Watt said: “When major inquiry reports are published there is a tendency for everyone to breathe a sigh of relief, mutter ‘well that’s that dealt with’ and move on. That should not be the case with this, extremely well researched and deeply concerning report. The message is simple and the responsibility of all commissioning authorities is clear.

“An early process of inspection by appropriately qualified experts should proceed as urgently as the various public commissioning authorities, local, health and governmental, can muster the skilled individuals who can do this work.

“The Royal Incorporation’s own submission to the Inquiry agreed strongly that without diligent and careful checking at every stage of the building process problems are almost inevitable. In this instance it was fortunate that nobody was injured, or killed.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The safety of people in public buildings is an absolute priority. That is why the housing minister has written to all local authorities highlighting the issues and recommendations the Cole Report raises.”

Meanwhile, the Unite union said a national inquiry should be held into the use of private finance models to build schools and other public facilities in Scotland.

Each of the 17 Edinburgh schools included in the Cole report were built using private finance.

The organisation said a national inquiry should look at safety, as well if the contracts are delivering value for money. In addition, it added the investigation should cover contracts being carried out under the Scottish Government’s NPD model, as well as previous PFI / PPP models.

Unite deputy Scottish secretary, Mary Alexander, said the report shows local authorities were being “held at gun point” to use private finance models even if it was cheaper to use traditional public sector borrowing.

“It’s no surprise to us that the report finds that using private finance increases the risk of poor quality design and construction,” she said.

“But it is absolutely shocking to find the report say that the Edinburgh scheme was ‘quite typical’ in this regard.

“A wall collapsed and people could have died. Other schools in Edinburgh were found to be substandard. If Edinburgh was ‘typical’ then we need a national inquiry to look at every building that was constructed under a private finance model so that the public can be assured they are safe and fit for purpose.

“Private finance is delivering poor quality at extortionate cost, putting massive debt around the necks of councils, health boards and other public bodies, and dragging them under at a time of austerity. The use of private finance models should be scrapped now.”

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