jimtoggleJim O’Neill says those trying to link the Edinburgh schools construction problems with PFI are wide of the mark.

 

In the last week, my fellow Co-operator and leader of Scotland’s first Co-operative Council, Councillor Andrew Burns, along with his comrades on the ruling Labour Group, have ensured that every child in Edinburgh affected by the problems of the so-called PFI schools has found a place for their education. A lot of mince has been spoken about this, and in particular, some badly informed people have used it to attack the whole PFI concept.

Whatever you think about PFI, this has little or nothing to do with how the schools were paid for. As the chair of a developing Housing Association, I know that this has much more to do with a building company who were intent on screwing as much money out of the contract as possible, appallingly poor work by the Clerks of Works (I mean, how do you miss the fact that there were no building ties?) and finally a contract where the finished buildings were signed off by the builder, and not the client. I rush to say that none of this has ever happened in contracts let by my own Housing Association.

Further, this is not a new issue. In the late 1970s I taught in a school on the south side of Glasgow which was only 10 years old. As the union (not EIS!) rep and the safety rep, I started to investigate why the expansion gaps in the floor of my classroom were widening and not closing as they were designed to. Temperatures of over 100°F were often recorded as well as members having to open the windows even when it was snowing outside. And yet, despite all my complaints, all we got from Strathclyde Regional Council were excuses.

That was until, using the powers in the then relatively new Health and Safety at Work Act, passed in 1974 by the second Harold Wilson Labour Government, I instructed any member whose classroom thermometer hit 100°F to leave the classroom, advise the head teacher and me, and repair to the staff room. The council soon after agreed to an investigation. It turned out that the classroom radiators were hidden behind bookcases and not one was fitted with a thermostat. The builder, knowing that they would not be seen, had implemented a nice little scam.

As a result of this intervention, thermostats were fitted, temperatures dropped, and SRC agreed to implement a maximum temperature (80°F) for any classroom. Current legislation set a minimum but no maximum. And this was long before anyone had thought of PFI.

The moral of this tale is that, no matter how you fund building work, large or small, there are always unscrupulous builders who will want to take advantage of any leeway that they are given. Clients have to ensure that what they are getting is what they have agreed. Oh and by the way, well done Co-operative Edinburgh for putting the kids before any investigation and points scoring, and getting them all back into a school.

Locally, in Cunninghame South, the big hustings organised by Giving Something Back, a local organisation set up to encourage people to give something back to their community, turned out to be a damp squib. The SNP candidate was taken to hospital that afternoon and the Nationalists could not put up a replacement. So much for their massive numbers of new members. Indeed, there seemed fewer SNP members than last year and they seemed very subdued throughout the hustings. That said, Cunninghame South Labour sent their best wishes for a full recovery.

One other consequence was that Irvine Beat, our local radio station who were to record the hustings and put them out later, was not able to do so since they were wary of Ofcom rules on parity without the SNP candidate. I suppose that should not be a surprise giving the accusations surrounding Chic Brodie, the SNP MSP who hosted their Sunday phone-in which instigated and earlier reference to the regulator. All this was disappointing given the very strong performance by Labour and Co-operative candidate, Joe Cullinane, who dominated the proceedings. Indeed, at the end, some of the audience approached him to promise their votes.

It’s a shame a wider audience could not hear the performance through Irvine Beat. Not that Joe would not have won anyway. He has regularly bested the SNP candidate in the council chamber. But it would have been helpful to hear the views of the candidate rather than of our Provost’s daughter who seems to think she is the candidate in every seat and on every list if the leaflets and the manifesto launch are to be believed.

One week to go! Onwards and upwards!