The Prime Minister rang in last week by announcing, amongst other appointments, a new health and social care secretary and education minister. And as Victoria Atkins and Damian Hinds get settled into their new roles, ensuring the safety and sustainability of the country’s schools and hospitals should be front of mind.
Reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in public sector buildings has taken up a lot of headline space in recent months. But with the number of hospital sites affected by RAAC having increased by more than 40% since May, and additional cases confirmed in UK schools as recently as a few weeks ago, identifying the scale of the problem and bringing in immediate steps to help mitigate damage should remain a priority for central Government.
The problem isn’t contained to schools and hospitals though – all publicly owned buildings are at risk, and to tackle this issue head-on, a different approach is needed at a local level. Whilst the Government takes a more immediate, case-by-case path, local authorities, educational institutions and NHS Estates now need to adopt a long-term view of their building stock. These buildings, many of which were delivered during the post-war construction boom, remain in use far past their original lifespan, posing a range of maintenance challenges and safety issues, of which RAAC is just one – from poor quality timber frames to asbestos.
The root cause of these issues? Funding – or a lack thereof. The maintenance and lifecycle management of public buildings is chronically underfunded, and the public sector must often prioritise budget for immediate risk rather than allocating it to assessing and maintaining risk over time, much like the Government’s case-by-case approach. But in the long run, this can end up costing more – especially if work is needed later to fix problems that could have been uncovered and dealt with earlier.
Too often, new buildings are viewed as the most cost-effective solution for councils, but maintaining existing stock and retrofitting as needed can make more financial sense. By taking the time to get to know their estates, the public sector can begin to identify potential issues that may otherwise not surface until much later and develop future-facing mitigation strategies for their buildings.
This would involve a rigorous, in-depth investigation into the condition of building stock and a robust compliance regime– as well as thorough evaluation of existing asset management strategies. Depending on the size of the estate, surveys like this can be a huge undertaking, particularly when capacity in local government is already stretched. But strategic partners can be commissioned to help, independently or through partnering arrangements. SCAPE has considerable experience working in partnership with an expert supply chain and can support with strategic asset management; from plans, standards and specifications to compliance. We also offer practical help when it comes to undertaking detailed stock condition surveys, to enable clients to make informed choices about their buildings.
Beyond up front funding, we need to make sure that the public sector is united in their support for the Government’s agenda of building back safer and greener and the Government should be ensuring that there’s a minimum standard of stock condition service which everyone is required to adhere to. Whether schools, hospitals, libraries or any other council-owned property, there needs to be a common approach to managing these buildings safely and effectively across the country, as well as support from central Government.
The public sector manages some complex estates with very limited budgets, tackling their compliance obligations well despite the challenges presented by financial constraints. But only by embracing a proactive, long-term strategy for asset management and maintenance will we be able to ensure the continued safety of our public buildings. By thoroughly understanding their estates, public bodies can avoid another issue reaching the critical point that RAAC has reached.
The financial constraints at local level may never be fully alleviated. But by taking a less crisis-oriented, planned approach to building management – with a clear steer from central Government on what that might look like – local authorities can unlock funding that helps to deliver new, safer and more sustainable assets across the country. Unless there is a re-direction of existing funds or new funding allocated for this purpose, the situation will get worse and we could see an increasing number of public buildings closing due to safety concerns, meaning much-needed services are no longer accessible to the general public. The Cabinet may look different after last week, but I would urge the existing and new members to consider how they can allocate more funding to deal with these issues. The Government’s commitment to public buildings and safety should remain constant - as should that of the public sector.
Mark Robinson is SCAPE Group chief executive