Councils Fear Being Cast Adrift By Government To Deal With Crumbling Concrete
Workers at a school in Sheffield that has been affected by RAAC (Alamy)
Local government figures have expressed concern that councils could be left with a "time ticking bomb” of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in public buildings if government doesn't provide financial support to address the issue.
Dr Jonathan Carr-West, chief executive of the Local Government Information Group, a non-partisan membership organisation which supports councils across the country, told PoliticsHome the crisis could be a “cataclysmic issue” for local authorities, with the possibility of "dozens" facing financial ruin if they have to fund RAAC works from their existing budgets.
More than a hundred schools across England are known to be at risk of collapse as a result of the concrete. It is expected that many more public buildings, including courts, hospitals and council buildings, could be affected.
The Local Government Association, an influential cross-party organisation that represents authorities across England and Wales, has said that they have consistently raised warnings about the risk of RAAC in schools since 2018.
While the Cabinet Office has established a cross-government working group on RAAC, local government sources believe that the scale of the problem within buildings run or owned by local authorities is difficult to ascertain, and question whether central government would have any way of knowing overall how many buildings contain the material.
One local government source believed that one reason it could prove difficult to trace and understand the scale of RAAC in public buildings is because many may have passed from public ownership into the private sector since the material was installed.
Carr-West said he anticipates that this will be a “massive problem” in public buildings because “there’s potential for a huge amount of property that all has exactly the same profile as schools in terms of age and the materials used”.
He doubted that anyone in central government would have “any form of complete assessment” on how big the problem is, and said that “in general, flows of data between central government and local government are quite poor and have been getting poorer”.
He pointed to an ITV interview with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan earlier this week, in which she said that the responsibility for school buildings lies with “local authorities and multi-academy trusts”. Government, however, has said it wants to hold more information “centrally”, leading Carr-West to predict that Whitehall will rule that it is for local authorities to “assess, manage, and deal with this problem,” when many are strapped for cash.
“Local authorities are responsible for estate management, but they're operating in a context where we've seen huge underinvestment over many, many years,” he explained.
“We’ve seen massive amounts of money taken out of local authority by central government.” .
Carr-West accused central government of trying "to have it both ways" by reducing funding, but being reluctant to step in when issues arise.
“I think a lot of people in local government will feel very cast adrift by all of this, will feel that they've been sort of left with a time ticking bomb on their hands," he said.
There is concern that because "councils are already stretched,” the additional financial burden of addressing the concrete crisis could “push dozens of them over the edge”.
“It’s potentially a really cataclysmic issue,” Carr-West added.
Christian Stone, a member of the Loughborough University RAAC research group agreed that the true scale of the RAAC’s presence in British buildings is “still relatively unknown”, and suspected the crisis in schools was “the tip of the iceberg”.
“There are hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of these elements in the UK,” he told PoliticsHome.
“At least schools and hospitals are starting to know about these issues. It is probably in office blocks, council buildings, warehouses, airports. Theatres, police stations, Ministry of Defence buildings. Anything that was made during that post-war reconstruction era, and right into the 1980s.”
Stone stressed that the problem wasn’t confined to the UK, explaining that the concrete was first made in Sweden and has long been produced in countries across the continent, but that conditions particular to the UK were likely to have exacerbated possible issues earlier.
“The UK has a wet and harsh climate, so it’s not surprising that we encountered this first. It’s likely that the same issues will start to be found in Europe,” he explained.
A government spokesperson pointed to action that has now been taken to begin to tackle the issue, and defended its record on efforts taken to avert a crisis in recent years.
“The government has acted decisively to tackle this issue and has taken a proportionate approach informed by experts," they said.
"That professional advice from experts on RAAC has evolved over time, from advice in the 1990s that RAAC did not pose a safety hazard to more recent advice on identifying and assessing structural adequacy.
“The Office of Government Property wrote to all Government Property Leaders in 2021, and again in September 2022, highlighting safety alerts on RAAC and signposting guidance on identification and remediation. The Government also created an urgent working group on RAAC this year to address the issue.
“Since then, departments have been surveying properties and depending on the assessment of the RAAC, decided to either continue to monitor the structure, reinforce it, or replace it. This is in line with the approach recommended by the Institution of Structural Engineers.”
Additional reporting by Adam Payne.
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