The missing Ties

Anyone with any knowledge of building, who saw the photos of that collapsed wall at Oxgangs Primary School in Edinburgh, after high winds in January 2016, would have reacted with incredulity: how could that possibly happen?

The wall – as we now know, and as can be seen – had been built with none of the wall or header ties that stitch it together, tying the inner blockwork to the external brick, so leaving both far too tall and skinny to stand up on their own. It was an accident waiting to happen, its collapse almost pre-ordained. Building a wall without ties is such an extraordinarily-stupid thing. It might save pennies and cut a small amount of time but it’s like saving time and money by not screwing wheel nuts on a school bus – an accident is inevitable, injury possible and massive financial and reputational blowback just a matter of time.

Anyone who has worked on a building site will know how many people, trades and managers will have had to be complicit in building and signing-off such a jaw-dropping mistake. The fact it happened at one school, in such a thoroughly-regulated environment as construction in Scotland, is remarkable; but what makes it absolutely extraordinary is the results of the investigations that followed, that have not been made fully available but that indicate that at least three, and maybe the whole other 16 of the 17 schools built under this Edinburgh Private Finance Initiative (PFI) deal, had the same issue, and that other PFI (or PPP – Public Private Partnerships, a similar and rebrand-ed version) schools in Glasgow, South Lanarkshire and Stir-lingshire suffered from it too.

Mistakes can happen on any contract and it would be wrong to suggest that structural ties could not be left out on a non-PFI building contract; but while an early report to the City of Edinburgh Council, on 17 May (a full report is promised after the summer), states “Early indications are that this remains a construction quality matter as opposed to one relating to a design defect or the operating model employed”, the recurrence of such an extraordinary deficiency across so many schools must lead us to question the culture of building created around this private delivery mechanism for the public buildings sector.


Shoddy Schools and Fancy Finance - full pamphlet (.pdf)

The South Gable at Oxgangs Primary School after the January 2016 collapse Picture STV
The South Gable at Oxgangs Primary School after the January 2016 collapse. Picture: STV

Publication / Saltire Series, The Saltire Society

In the Saltire Series, The Saltire Society invites individuals to spark fresh thinking, ignite debate and challenge our orthodoxies, through the publication of short commissioned essays.