Orcadian Column, 7 September 2023

7 Sep 2023

During its construction, the Scottish Parliament building attracted more than its fair share of criticism. For all the delays and cost overruns, however, thankfully the project never resorted to using ‘flaky concrete’, or reinforced aerated autoclaved concrete (RAAC), to give it its full Sunday name.

As MPs and MSPs return this week after the summer recess, the threat posed by the presence of RAAC in schools, hospitals, courts and other public buildings across the UK is uppermost in the minds of most parliamentarians.

Used extensively in construction from the 1950s to 1990s, RAAC was cheap but is now well beyond its ‘shelf life’. The Health & Safety Executive has warned that it may “collapse with little or no notice” and even buildings previously assessed as safe are now deemed at risk.

As a result, thousands of children in over 150 schools across England have had their return to school disrupted. Some are being housed in temporary classrooms while others face the dreaded prospect of a return to remote learning for weeks, potentially months. UK Ministers insist they are prioritising pupil and staff safety but questions remain as to why they waited until the week before schools return to act.

Indeed, a former senior civil servant in the Department for Education confirmed this week that UK Ministers were alerted to the risks back in 2018, following the collapse of a roof at a primary school in Kent. This should have triggered an escalation in the planned programme or school refurbishment and rebuilding. Instead, the UK Government opted initially for ‘business as usual’, before Rishi Sunak, as Chancellor, inexcusably cut the capital budget for schools. Chickens are now coming home to roost, though not on crumbling concrete beams, if they have any sense.

Scotland has not escaped unscathed, and local authorities, health boards and universities and colleges are scrambling to understand the extent of their exposure which is expected to run into the tens if not hundreds of millions of pounds. So far, there is no sign of the school closures we have seen in England, but Scottish Ministers are under pressure to make a statement to parliament making clear their assessment of the problem and what resources will be made available. This is an issue that is set to run.

A saga that is already long-running is that of the Scottish Government’s short term lets legislation. I won’t be the only MSP returning to Holyrood after a summer listening to complaints from local accommodation providers about the problems this ill-conceived measure is creating. The impact on the tourism sector looks like being significant, but in Orkney’s smaller isles it could see much-needed accommodation being withdrawn, leaving tradespeople and public sector workers without any option for overnight stays.

This legislation is a headache small businesses could do without. For a fraction of the cost and hassle, a registration scheme could have achieved most of the same objectives. ‘Party flats’, I accept, remain a problem in Edinburgh, but it should not be the case that what Edinburgh needs the rest of the country gets.

So I joined cross-party MSPs last week in signing a letter to the Housing Minister urging him to pause the introduction of the legislation. This would allow a rethink in the face of legal challenges, a widespread refusal to sign up to the scheme and even accusations from former SNP Industry Minister, Ivan McKee that the SNP/Green Government isn’t listening to Scottish businesses.

As he sets out his Programme for Government this week, Humza Yousaf has a chance to press the reset button. His leading role in the latest underwhelming march for independence last weekend suggests Mr Yousaf plans to keep pressing the same old buttons. A change of concrete may not be needed at Holyrood, but a change in government priorities is certainly overdue.

Finally, on a happier note, congratulations to Orkney Women’s footballers, whose emphatic win over Nairn I refereed on Sunday. The team has been blazing a trail in the Highlands & Islands league, with real quality and an exciting crop of talented youngsters. After the resounding success of the women’s World Cup in Australia, Orkney is clearly laying strong foundations ahead of our home Island Games in 2025.