The Department for Education has announced new measures to minimise the impact of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in education settings.
The Department wrote that, “while building maintenance is the duty of councils and academy trusts, new RAAC cases have reduced the Department for Education’s confidence that school and college buildings with confirmed RAAC should remain open without mitigations in place.”
The material was used in construction of public buildings during the 1950s to 1980s but has now exceeded its lifespan of 30 years and now the material is susceptible to crumbling.
In response, the Department has decided to work towards changing its approach to RAAC in education settings but reassures that the vast majority of schools and colleges will be unaffected by this change.
Just over 50 settings have already been supported to put mitigations in place this year, including through additional funding for temporary accommodation, and all children are receiving face-to-face learning.
This week, the department has contacted all 104 further settings where RAAC is currently confirmed to be present without mitigations in place, to ask them to vacate spaces or buildings that are known to contain RAAC.
The majority of these settings will remain open for face-to-face learning on their existing site, because only a small part of the site is affected by RAAC. A minority will need to either fully or partially relocate to alternative accommodation while mitigations are put in place because of the extent to which RAAC is present.
The government has been aware of RAAC in public sector buildings since 1994, with the Department for Education publishing guidance in 2018 for schools about the need to have adequate contingencies in place for the eventuality that RAAC-affected buildings need to be vacated at short notice.
Officials from the department have also contacted responsible bodies directly to remind them of the need to ensure that these plans are in place.
The Department for Education is providing further support including:
- Providing funding for essential immediate works needed to remove any immediate risk and, where necessary, to support the provision of temporary buildings for schools and colleges affected. The department will work closely with responsible bodies to manage RAAC in the long-term, supported by capital funding provided to the sectors each year, and through the school rebuilding programme.
- Assigning a dedicated caseworker to each school/college affected, who will work with them to assess their particular needs and implement individually designed mitigation plans. This could include using other spaces on the school or college site, using spaces in nearby schools or elsewhere in the local area, or putting in place safety measures in the affected area. If needed, the caseworker will be onsite to support the school.
- Issuing further guidance to schools and colleges on identifying and managing RAAC. This will set out how the department will provide support and funding to schools and other settings so that face-to-face education continues safely.
- Project delivery, property, and technical experts will be on hand to support schools to put face-to-face education measures in place.
John Wallace, managing director at specialist construction and real estate law firm Ridgemont, said: “The prevalence of asbestos in schools presents a significant complicating factor in remediating issues relating to RAAC. The construction sector is used to dealing with the presence of asbestos in buildings, particularly those that were built around the same time as the proliferation of RAAC. Legislation and industry practice ensures that processes are in place that enable asbestos to be removed, where necessary, in a calm, meticulous way.
“Recent building safety legislation means that liability for unsafe buildings (whether in respect of their construction or maintenance) can fall at the feet of developers, building owners and other participants in the construction sector. Those responsible will need to ensure that they meet the requirements of the substantive legislation in this area, identify any RAAC and taking particular care in removing the same where asbestos is identified in its vicinity.
“Where RAAC panels may contain asbestos, considerable care will need to be taken in any invasive testing of the RAAC. Asbestos, once disturbed, is a serious hazard.
“The need to remove RAAC, and any asbestos, across schools and other buildings provides an opportunity for schools to be made safer places and improved. However, those responsible for such buildings and those engaged to undertake the work carry a heavy burden. Serious consequences follow for those that do not meet their obligations under the relevant legislation.”
Dr David Crosthwaite, chief economist at the Building Cost Information Service, said: “Assuming that these are all individual school buildings, the cost implications for the government are huge. Each building might cost £5m or more each to replace based on our data.
“There are certainly many other public buildings including hospitals that would have used reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC).
“This will mean a lot of work for surveyors and engineers, maintenance contractors, Acrow prop manufacturers and possibly Portacabin manufacturers at a time when according to the Office for National Statistics, more than one in five construction businesses are experiencing a shortage of workers.
“RAAC was supposed to have a 30-year design life and most of the buildings affected are beyond this. It’s important to recognise that for such publicly procured buildings, it is typical to assume a 50-year design life.
“This would imply that most of these buildings would have been approaching end-of-life anyway and their designers may, with good reason, have expected them to be extensively refurbished or replaced about now.
“Any buildings which have this material as part of their fabric should be inspected regularly, suitably protected and buildings with this material should ultimately be replaced.”