PFI schools in new fire damper safety scare
A series of English schools are now under the spotlight in a safety probe. Following last year’s Channel 4 News investigation highlighting fire damper safety concerns at UK hospitals, a similar check on schools has revealed a series of equally concerning problems.
In both cases, the buildings where safety concerns have been raised, were constructed under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), a scheme under which private companies build public facilities, then rent them back to the government under long term contracts.
An investigation over the summer by the Independent newspaper found eight schools in north west England had safety concerns. Constructed under the Building Schools for the Future programme, the eight were all constructed in the Knowsley region of Merseyside, by contractor Balfour Beatty, under its Transform Schools (Knowsley) banner.
Concerns were raised after a kitchen fire at one of the schools, earlier this year. The fire in the building spread faster than expected, and smoke entered an adjacent stairwell. As the newspaper
noted: “If the blaze had been more serious the smoke could have affected children evacuating the building.”
Knowsley was already taking the safety and integrity of its properties seriously. Following the earlier Channel 4 report on hospital safety, the local authority had checked its schools over, and found a significant number of schools exhibiting the same shortcomings. It reported more than 60 fire dampers in the schools were not accessible for checking or maintenance.
Following the kitchen fire, further checks on the schools were carried out, revealing more bad news. All eight of the PFI-delivered schools were found to have defective fireproofing within their structures. An urgent programme of work is now under way, to address the problems highlighted.
Subsequent to their completion and opening, the schools were sold on to a new landlord, Dalmore. The company told the Independent: “Transform Schools (Knowsley) is aware of issues with the integrity of the passive fire safety provisions across the PFI estate having carried out surveys of all facilities. The company is now working with our supply chain to rectify all issues.”
Airvent director Charles Hurdman commented: “Following the Channel 4 report, we received numerous inquiries from property owners and managers, concerned about their own properties. We have set up a dedicated team, to help such property managers with identifying proper maintenance procedures, and to assist them in rectifying defective or poorly installed components. Many were still not clear, that recent regulatory changes put the responsibility for building safety firmly on them.”
“What is very worrying about this new incident in Knowsley, is that we all expect new buildings to be constructed safely, and to building regulations. It is clear that inspection regimes and construction management on site have been falling short, with the result that our children are being taught in potentially unsafe buildings.”
Read the report in the Independent.