Glasgow alley

It’s A Metaphor, See?

Nicola Biggerstaff

Back in primary school, I remember being so excited to see this ‘new school’ everyone had been talking about. The building we first started out in was a relic, with leaks and cracks throughout the interiors and in the playground, leading to an infamous incident involving a particularly accident-prone younger version of myself tripping and busting my nose on a concrete slab before the morning bell had even rang. So, as you can imagine, the idea of a trip-proof playground was appealing to both me and my parents.

We watched on from the gates as the months and years went by, as the scaffold and panelling were slowly put in place in the next field over, then after one bank holiday we were in. The building was bright and colourful, the chairs and tables in each classroom a combination of blues and yellows, with a new gym that looked absolutely massive to our young eyes.

A couple of years later, I was very jealous of my older brother, who got a whole week off at high school while his brand new school building was moved into. When I got to see it for myself after another few years, I noticed just how similar it looked to a lot of the new high schools being built in our area.

So why did we need them in the first place?

When we were younger, we were given the most simplistic reasoning: the roofs on both our schools were flat, they were causing issues with leaks and floods. Simple, fair enough. The pieces obviously clicked together later, as I connected the dots between local level politics and how it affected my life. These new buildings were a part of South Lanarkshire Council’s School Modernisation Programme, a fifteen year initiative beginning in 2004 aiming to transform the areas educational settings to “meet the needs of a 21st century learning environment.” At a cost totalling over one billion pounds in investment and procurement, all nineteen secondary schools, and most of the areas 125 primary schools have been replaced.

While the initiative has not been without its own fair share of controversy, and was by no means a perfect solution, it means that we managed to avoid this week’s latest testament to our nation’s declining standards, as it has been found that the use of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (Raac), in some older buildings, including many schools and hospital buildings has rendered them so structurally unsound that they have been forced to close, affecting over one hundred schools, as well as scores ofhealthcare buildings, hospitals, and even some courtrooms. While this is mostly an issue affecting England and Wales, with thirty seven schools in Scotland found to contain Raac, it is still important to address.

A popular building material in the mid-to-late twentieth century as it was generally cheaper to manufacture and procure than solid concrete, concerns regarding the use of Raac were raised as early as the 1980s, when buildings containing Raac dating back to the 1950s began to show signs of wear under the material’s 30-year average lifespan, as the presence of water, made more likely by the air contained within the material, can cause any encased steel structures to rust.

This latest revelation will only cause even more disruption as schoolchildren and patients alike will be scrambled into temporary arrangements, such as prefabs, or it has even been suggested that some children will be forced to return to home schooling.

The disruption to the lives of young people caused by government ineptitude over the last three years will have a lasting impact on their development, and they deserve better than this. For decades, warnings regarding the safety of Raac were swept under the carpet or ignored completely by private interests only concerned with land profit, and yet they are not the ones paying the price. Instead, the young and the at risk are, once again, bearing the brunt of the consequences.

I find myself in agreement with many commentators and journalists in the media this week, such as Neil Mackay writing in the Herald as well as Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian: has there ever been a more appropriate metaphor for the state of affairs in this country? Where our buildings, the ones purpose built to cultivate our futures, are literally crumbling? Are so unfit for purpose, and now simply serve to highlight our hopes disintegrating at roughly the same rate?

While private construction companies feel free to buy up every spare piece of land they can to mass produce unaffordable housing and rake in the profits, and with no government with enough backbone to tell them no, to warn them of the damage they’re doing to local infrastructure and ecology, we as taxpayers do not seem to be even afforded the privilege of good quality public infrastructure. Decreasing services, potholes, now we cannot even trust that the buildings we enter won’t be at risk of imminent collapse.

A crescendo to our crumbling spirit, I’m reminded of a final family tale. As a child in the 1970s, growing up with nowhere near the amount of luxuries modernity has afforded us, my dad and the neighbour kids every Wimbledon would ‘acquire’ a small slab of plaster from a nearby factory and use it to draw a tennis court in the middle of the square. They would play outside with whatever they had, while the grown-ups congregated to watch the matches. Maybe the problems would have been noticed sooner if it was a small slab of Raac they acquired every year.

It’s a sense of community many folks from the era yearn to return to, understandably. A time when we could trust in local government to have even our most basic needs met, before economy was placed above the collective good, and when acting for the common weal was truly commonplace.

3 thoughts on “It’s A Metaphor, See?”

  1. Michael Smith

    “While private construction companies feel free to buy up every spare piece of land they can to mass produce unaffordable housing and rake in the profits, and with no government with enough backbone to tell them no, to warn them of the damage they’re doing to local infrastructure and ecology, we as taxpayers do not seem to be even afforded the privilege of good quality public infrastructure. ”

    This is a general bugbear of mine, not anything to do with Nicola. All construction companies do is build, a few might have small development arms, but all the vast majority do is build what someone else has contracted them to do. This might seem like semantics, but if we described companies by where they make their money from we would quickly and accurately see where the problems are with those who “mass produce unaffordable housing and rake in the profits”.

    They are often described as housebuilders, but they don’t actually build any houses. When Persimmon was giving out 9 figure bonuses, it didn’t actually have a company procedure in place for how their houses should be built! These companies make their money by buying up land, waiting until the time is right to most profitably develop it (this could be decades, I know of one 800 home greenfield development in the greater Glasgow area currently under construction where the land was bought in the early 80s), then employing contractors to build the roads, drains, houses etc. and then selling them on. Most charitably they could be described as developers, but most accurately as land bankers. They seek to control the supply of new housing so it can be fed into the market at the most profitable time for them.

    “no government with enough backbone to tell them no” planning permission being refused is quite common, but if a field never gets built over the general public is probably unaware that someone once tried to do so. However that is besides the point, most local authorities actively encourage development. Whether it is to meet local housing supply needs or just because they want the revenue from council tax or business rates. The presumption is development is good.

    Also, if a local authority has zoned an area for housing in its masterplan, and someone submits an application which meets the local and national planning requirements, it is very difficult not to approve it. The key to opposing inappropriate development is when the local masterplan gets updated, but it is very difficult for your average citizen to be aware this is happening, never mind have the knowledge / resource to do anything effective about it.

    Pretty much every problem outlined in the article above is the problem of 40 years spent living under neoliberalism. Capital must be allowed to grow unopposed regardless of the public good. The individual is more important than the collective. Which is a double edge sword, because every individual then finds the system is stacked against them, and inevitable individual ‘failures’ are the fault of the individual, not the system rigged against them.

    1. Ian Davidson

      Michael. Very good summation of status quo. Second last para important: the only vehicle for local communities to stop future inappropriate land development is by participating in the forthcoming round of Local Development Plans consultation as objecting at the stage of specific planning permission is too late. However, if you don’t have an effective Community Council clued up on planning then it is difficult. Most councillors and parties are pro-growth, pro development: space is there to be filled up!

  2. Ian Davidson

    My best hope now at 61 is that I soon wake up in the shower aka Bobbie from Dallas! and realise that the past five decades have been a dream! Otherwise the public infrastructure (hard and soft) of the 7Os, is, like many of us, crumbling and crumpled!
    On education specifically, perhaps too much focus on shiny new buildings and not enough on the quality and relevance of the education?

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