£1 Billion Government Project Results in Pleas for Demolition of Asbestos-Containing Schools Built Under the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has consistently maintained that asbestos left in-situ, which is ‘well protected’ and in ‘good condition’, should be preserved rather than removed.

However, in edition 299 of BC Disease News (here), we analysed a Report, which called for the 'phased removal' of asbestos in the UK, including schools, 80% of which supposedly contain asbestos [according to the Education and Skills Funding Agency (EFSA)[i] and the Joint Union Asbestos Committee (JUAC)].[ii]

The Report: ‘DON’T BREATHE IN: BRIDGING THE ASBESTOS SAFETY GAP – A review of research, policy and practice’ was created by think tank, ResPublica, and it recommended, among other considerations, that the UK Government commission a cost-benefit analysis and timeline for the removal of all asbestos from public buildings in the UK. More detailed recommendations, including the demand for a comprehensive study that establishes an accurate measurement of ambient asbestos fibres in schools and hospitals, were shared in an open letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak MP, on 1 April 2020.[iii]

This is not least because, as we reported in edition 273 (here), teachers are considered to be at 5-fold risk of developing the disease compared to the general population, with the institutional mortality rate not having fallen since the turn of the 21st century. What is more, earlier this year, a 44-year old doctor, who was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2018, settled her industrial disease claim against the NHS on the day before trial and has since alleged that that there is a ‘hidden epidemic’ of asbestos-related disease in the medical setting.[iv] She averred that she was negligently exposed to asbestos (maintenance works disturbed asbestos in ceiling tiles and travel through underground service tunnels disturbed asbestos-lagged pipes) while working as a medical student and a junior doctor at the old Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry (closed in 2006), between 1998 and 2004.[v]

One of the first examples of Government austerity measures to be instituted in 2010 was the cessation of the Building Schools for the Future Programme, which had the effect of halting 715 rebuild projects.[vi]

In recent years, the Government has been managing its own Priority School Building Programme, which, to-date, has spent around £4.4 billion on 537 repair and rebuild projects, using both public and privately financed money.

However, with just 1-year of the initiative still to run, on 29 June 2020, the Prime Minister announced a new and ‘transformative’ 10-year rebuilding programme for schools across England to ‘continue raising standards across the country’.[vii]

Supported by over £1 billion in funding, current timetabling indicates that construction work on the first 50 projects (these will be confirmed in the coming months) will commence in September 2021 and will most likely prioritise secondary schools, especially those in the North and the Midlands. Further details of the new, multi-wave, 10-year construction programme will be set out at the next Spending Review, which is expected this Autumn.

On top of over £1.4 billion in school condition funding already committed to 2020/21 spending, the Government has pledged an additional £560 million for repairs and upgrades to schools that will be carried out this year.

In respect of further education (FE) colleges, the Chancellor’s Spring Budget revealed that £1.5 billion would be invested over a 5-year period to transform the FE college estate and the Government’s latest announcement allows £200 million of this funding to be accessed 1-year earlier than scheduled.

Is this initial financial pledge an appropriately substantial pledge?

In 2017, the National Audit Office (NAO) estimated that a capital injection of £6.7 billion would be needed to pay for the backlog of repairs and rebuilding required to bring schools up to a ‘satisfactory or better’ standard. They would then need a further £7.1 billion to sufficiently improve them to an ‘above satisfactory to good’ condition.

Although the Government’s new scheme has been regarded as a ‘significant step in the right direction’, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, advised that ‘the situation [that the NAO predicted] is likely to have worsened …’

Writing for The Times Educational Supplement (tes), Conservative Party politician, David Morris MP, welcomed the Prime Minister’s new £1 billion promise, whilst conceding that it is ‘utterly shameful’ that teachers and pupils are ‘still at risk from asbestos-riddled schools’.[viii]

It is his view that his Party should ‘proceed with the mantra: make the worst of all the first to fall’, adding that:

‘… the mistake now would be for the government to misdirect its attention to enhancing otherwise serviceable buildings, leaving the most hazardous schools the country has ever built to reopen in September of this year’.

Specifically, the minister underscored 3,000 schools, designed in the late 1950’s, which were only intended to last 40-years, but are still standing after 70-years and are ‘unfit for purpose’. These schools were built under the Consortium of Local Authorities Special Programme (CLASP) and were popular, due to their light steel frames and asbestos-containing structural support columns. In fact, the majority of school buildings in England are over 40-years old, with 60% of them built before 1976.

Mr. Morris MP considers that the demolition of 1,000 active CLASP buildings would make a ‘considerable difference to the asbestos risk posed by the UK’s total building stock’.

It will therefore be interesting to observe how this new school improvement budget is divided and whether the asbestos conundrum is tackled.

 

[i] Education Funding Agency, ‘Asbestos Management in Schools: Data Collection Report’ (February 2017) <https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/28572/1/Asbestos_management_in_schools_data_collection_report.pdf> accessed 23 January 2020.  

[ii] Committee of Public Accounts, Capital funding for Schools (2016–17 HC 961) para 5. <https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmpubacc/961/961.pdf> accessed 23 January 2020.

[iii] Phillip Blond and Charles Pickles, ‘An Open Letter to Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer’ (1 April 2020 ResPublica) <https://5e41e61f-e063-4ba6-92b6-e90d8cd15def.usrfiles.com/ugd/5e41e6_9118aa9748064f548ccc7990b5dd40a6.pdf> accessed 19 August 2020.

[iv] ‘Settlement secured for doctor exposed to asbestos during hospital training in Coventry’ (28 April 2020 Legh Day) <https://www.leighday.co.uk/News/Press-releases-2020/April-2020/Settlement-secured-for-doctor-exposed-to-asbestos> accessed 19 August 2020.

[v] Shaun Lintern, ‘Dying doctor warns of asbestos ‘hidden epidemic’ caused by NHS failures’ (9 February 2020 The Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/health/asbestos-nhs-deaths-cancer-doctors-nurses-a9313391.html> accessed 19 August 2020.

[vi] Kate Proctor and Richard Adams, ‘Johnson pledges £1bn school rebuilding programme for England’ (28 June 2020 The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/education/2020/jun/28/johnson-pledges-1bn-over-10-years-for-school-rebuilding-in-england> accessed 18 August 2020.

[vii] Department for Education, Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street, and The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, ‘PM announces transformative school rebuilding programme’ (29 June 2020 GOV.UK) <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-announces-transformative-school-rebuilding-programme> accessed 18 August 2020.

[viii] David Morris MP, ‘£1bn school building fund must expel asbestos forever’ (30 June 2020 TES) <https://www.tes.com/news/ps1bn-school-building-fund-must-expel-asbestos-forever> accessed 18 August 2020.