The Scottish Government and the wider public sector has already done much to understand the extent of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) issues in Scotland, and we recognise there is more to do. Everyone with the responsibility for building safety takes this matter very seriously. I want to assure the public that the Scottish Government is working at pace with partner organisations across the public sector on this challenge and has been for some time.
Risks associated with the presence of RAAC in buildings is not a new issue in the construction sector.
In order to fully understand the scope of RAAC, including in the school estate we have been working with local authorities, NHS Scotland, and other public sector organisations in Scotland as they have conducted reviews of RAAC in their properties. This allows us to better understand the extent of the issue; ensure that risks are managed; and where required to be reassured that remedial work and mitigations have been put in place where necessary.
Institution of Structural Engineers first published guidance on RAAC to raise awareness amongst the structural engineering community in March 2022. My officials were made aware of this publication through engagement in professional channels at that time and have throughout supported reasonable building safety. For example, in July 2022, Learning Directorate officials made contact with Scottish Heads of Property Services (SHOPS) & Association of Directors of Education in Scotland (ADES) to discuss RAAC.
In December 2022, NHS Scotland Assure commissioned a survey team to establish the extent and condition of RAAC across the NHS Estate.
Early in the summer this year, my officials met with HSE to discuss school estate matters including RAAC and met with several local authorities individually to discuss their specific issues.
In July this year, my officials issued RAAC survey to all local authorities via SHOPS network.
Furthermore the Ministerial Working Group on Building and Fire Safety discussed RAAC, pressing for and tracking progress on this issue since in December 2022.
The Cross-sector Working Group on RAAC now supports our work as my officials join up with their sector counterparts and key public sector partners and representatives of the private sector. This has been established as a more formal forum to share good practice and recent discuss professional advice building on the work ongoing, which was already underway.
More recently, my officials have been invited to join the Cross-UK government working group on RAAC.
In various recent meetings, we have once again been assured the current Institution of Structural Engineers guidance and risk-based approach remains appropriate for the assessment and management of RAAC in schools and other buildings.
The most recent discussion with the Institution of Structural Engineers was on 5 September when my officials met with the Director who confirmed their RAAC guidance has not changed and remains a good valid practice measure in this area, and we have issued it to local authorities for their information.
The Institution of Structural Engineers remain of the view that their guidance is in keeping with the Health and Safety Executives approach to managing risk in a proportionate manner and considers all relevant factors.
While the issue of RAAC has been in discussion for some time and action has been taken, the UK Government Department of Education changed their approach for RAAC specifically in schools on 31 August. A change in approach which Scottish Ministers learned through the media.
Presiding Officer, events of recent weeks have highlighted a deeply concerning level of chaos in the UK Government, overseen by the Secretary of State for Education.
It is totally unacceptable that UK Ministers prioritised briefing the media before alerting – or share crucial information - with devolved governments.
In what can only be described as a complete dereliction of duty, it wasn’t until 18.56 on Sunday 3 September that the UK government shared 4 pages of RAAC photographs dating as far back as 2018. Photographs – not detailed or comprehensive structural reports - just photographs with the bare minimum of supporting context. To be frank, the engagement has been insulting.
I can confirm to the Chamber that following receipt of the photographs, we are still awaiting detailed and comprehensive structural reports which we requested on Sunday 3 September, and again on Tuesday 5 September.
The withholding of this information was completely reckless and irresponsible. The Secretary of State’s disregard of the work of devolved governments could not be clearer. But more importantly, it has spread unnecessary alarm amongst parents, staff and children.
Now as I stated earlier, work has already been underway to deal with RAAC in the school estate. To date, RAAC has been identified in 40 school buildings across Scotland, albeit in some of those it is in parts of buildings which have not been in use for some time.
Wherever RAAC has been found, mitigations have been put in place. For example, St Kentigern’s Academy in West Lothian has closed parts of its estate, including dining and kitchen areas and Preston Lodge school in East Lothian has taken action to close off impacted classrooms and other areas. Riverside Primary School fully closed its building over the summer holidays and moved pupils into alternative provision.
COSLA have confirmed that safety is the central consideration and there is robust guidance which is followed by every local authority to ensure these buildings are safe for the pupils, staff and the public to be in.
Local authorities have a clear responsibility to ensure their schools are safe for pupils, staff and their users. And I know they take this responsibility very seriously. They are carrying out assessments of all their school buildings, and we are aware that some parts of the school estate in some councils still need to complete full surveys. Ministers have been clear to authorities that these must be carried out as a matter of highest priority, and have offered assistance to councils in this matter where appropriate.
However, it is imperative there is transparency around the schools where RAAC has been identified and the mitigations in place. We are working with COSLA to ensure that all local authorities will have published information about the schools affected by the end of this week.
The cross-government working group we established is enabling centralised understanding of how RAAC is affecting other sectors of the public estate.
Work is ongoing to assess properties across the public sector.
It is important to state again that the assessment process is proportionate and based on the Institution of Structural Engineers’ guidance.
I want to once again reassure the Chamber that where RAAC has been identified, mitigations are in place in accordance with that guidance.
What is clear, Presiding Officer, is that significant work will need to be undertaken across the public sector estate in Scotland and indeed right across the UK in dealing with RAAC over the longer term.
The First Minister has been clear, that while we don’t have contingencies within Government to spend on RAAC, we will of course spend what we need to spend in order to ensure that our buildings are safe for those that use them.
I was pleased to see the Chancellor seeming to commit over the weekend that the UK Government will spend what is needed on this - but the more recent briefings coming out of the UK Government, that there will be no new money. are deeply worrying.
Let me be clear, that after a decade of Tory austerity and cuts to capital budgets, it is simply not sustainable for the UK Government to say that no new money will be made available.
Now, this is an issue we’ve been alive to for some time – long before the change in approach by the DfE. On 16 August the Deputy First Minister wrote to the Treasury seeking clarity on new capital funding to deal with RAAC. Then on 3 September, our Education Secretary wrote to the Secretary of State for Education seeking clarity on funding. Thus far, neither have received a response. Again, the ignorance is simply astounding in such a serious situation.
The UK Government cannot put their head in the sand. New capital money has to be made available, including to the devolved governments, to allow us to take any action that may be required.
Anything else would be a dereliction of duty from the Prime Minister and the Chancellor – and I would hope that I can count on the support of all members in this chamber in making this case to the UK Government.
I’ll close as I started, Presiding Officer. The safety of occupants in buildings and the buildings themselves is of upmost importance. The actions this Government is taking, along with public sector and industry partners, is designed to ensure that appropriate measures are in place, provided for the short-term and also the long-term, to ensure the safety of our buildings for their occupants.
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