Edinburgh Schools Independent Inquiry – Time for public sector bodies to be more “intelligent customers?”

In January 2016, pupils of Oxgangs Primary in Edinburgh were forced to relocate when part of the school’s external wall collapsed during stormy weather. The discovery of defects in the wall prompted the investigation of other schools, resulting in the enforced closure of 17 schools across Edinburgh for several months while rectification works took place.

In response to the closures, the Chief Executive of City of Edinburgh Council commissioned an independent Inquiry to review and report on the circumstances surrounding the closures. The Inquiry was conducted by Professor John Cole CBE, an architect and retired senior civil servant, who made a number of recommendations covering areas such as procurement and construction.

All of the schools had been built as part of a Public Private Partnership Contract (PPP1). Under PPP schemes, local authorities engage the private sector to construct and operate the projects which are then leased back to the government. The schemes have garnered controversy with some considering that they are poor value for money and a risk to the taxpayer. The SNP scrapped the schemes, however, there are still 34 ongoing school PPP contracts across Scotland.

The City of Edinburgh Council contracted with Edinburgh Schools Partnership Limited (ESP) for the design, build and subsequent operation of the Schools. The design and construction of the schools was then subcontracted to a joint venture AMJV. Various other professional and construction companies were then appointed by AMJV to aid in different aspects of the design and construction.

The Inquiry reported on the use of PPP and the procurement of the project. The Inquiry took the view that the council had sound rationale for using the PPP scheme and that the PPP1 contract was generally adequate for purpose. The use of a PPP model was not to blame.

However, the Inquiry recommended that public sector bodies had to become more of an “intelligent customer” when contracting with the private sector under any model.
Under traditional contracting the Employer played a significant role in the design and build process and employed the design team directly. In recent years there has been a shift of responsibility on to the contractor and the design and build model – where the contractor is responsible for providing a “turnkey” product – rules.

The Inquiry found that in seeking to transfer risk in this way, public bodies need to remain cognisant of their duty to the public to ensure safety of facilities. It is a key recommendation of the Inquiry that public bodies invest time and money in the independent scrutiny of projects from the first part of the design process until the construction is completed.

As the relationship between the Employer and key members of the design team has become one or more step removed, the Inquiry expressed concern that this is resulting in a lack of communication and quality assurance.

Professor Cole noted that it would be “naïve” to assume the quality control problems uncovered at the Edinburgh schools were limited to Edinburgh or schools and that the essential inspection role traditionally played by a Clerk of Works – which has dramatically reduced over recent years – should be reintroduced.

The long term impact of the Inquiry of course remains to be seen but the City of Edinburgh Council chief executive has already declared that an action plan will be drawn up and it seems inevitable that we will see a change in the way the public sector procure and manage its contracts going forward.

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