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21st February 2017

Why 17 Schools in Edinburgh should make us all stop and consider our reputation

Last week Professor John Coles published his report into the building defects that led to emergency closure of seventeen schools in Edinburgh in 2016. It makes sobering reading for anyone who cares about our industry and the reputation of those who work in it.

The problem originally came to light following the collapse of a wall at a primary school during a storm in January 2016. The subsequent investigation discovered that the collapse was due to missing or incorrectly installed wall ties and that the same defect had resulted in the collapse of walls at other schools as long ago as 2012.

Why it had taken a further four years for this to be investigated is unclear but the potential consequences of this failure to investigate and act at the time is made all too clear by the report.

“The fact that no injuries or fatalities to children resulted from the collapse of the gable wall at Oxgangs school was a matter of timing and luck. Approximately nine tonnes of masonry fell on an area where children could easily have been standing or passing through. One does not require much imagination to think of what the consequences might have been if it had happened an hour or so later.”

As if that is not sobering enough, the investigation also highlighted other significant defects, most notably the lack of adequate fire stopping which would have made the buildings unsafe in the event of a fire.

So how could those responsible for constructing these buildings have got it so wrong? Professor Coles is in no doubt ; “It is the unequivocally held view of the inquiry that there were fundamental and widespread failures of the quality assurance processes of the various contractors and subcontractors who built or oversaw the building of the PPP1 schools."

In its submission to the investigation, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) highlighted the use of Design and Build and what they believe is the lack of independent scrutiny that results from using this form of procurement. In my experience, design and build itself is not synonymous with a lack of quality or quality control. In fact it is probably the most common form of procurement used today and defects on this scale are rare.

So I think we have to look beyond the procurement process and understand the behaviours that led to an acceptance of poor workmanship on these sites. This was not a single defect affecting one building, this was multiple defects that occurred on a number of projects, procured and constructed as part of a single programme of works. The only conclusion that one can draw from this is that the failing was a systemic one, which is a point that bears closer examination.

Much of the industry reporting of this case has focused on the failings at trade and supervisory level. But there are many unanswered questions about the role of those responsible for commissioning, directing and managing these projects, which have wider implications for our industry and society.

As professionals we have a duty to the industry and wider society to act responsibly and ethically. This defines what it means to be a professional. And we all have a responsibility for the reputation of our industry and the wellbeing of those who work within it. It is why the CIOB has been at the forefront of raising awareness of the importance of ethics and ethical behaviour in our industry, notably through our work on modern slavery.

In accord with the RIAS, I hope that the industry will pause and take time to consider the lessons learned from this report and act to ensure that it does not happen again.


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