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The news that schools are crumbling — they were made from a type of concrete which is literally full of holes — has become a perfect metaphor for Britain’s worn-out government. Unfortunately for the prime minister, events like this crystallise the growing feeling that Britain is broken. But it is also a salutary tale about our national addiction to taking short-cuts.

The Pantheon in Rome is made of concrete. It has stood for almost 2,000 years. But in our subcontracted, turn-a-blind-eye, get-rich-quick world, we have contrived to construct public buildings which only have a 30-year life. RAAC (reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete) is much cheaper and lighter than conventional concrete. It’s also weaker. Yet contractors bunged it merrily into hospitals and schools from the 1950s onwards. An engineer explained to me this week that the material isn’t covered by design codes because it is “proprietary”, and that because it looks identical to other concrete — until it actually starts cracking — it’s very hard to know where it is.

The hunt for RAAC is now a national sport. The panic might have been contained had the department for education warned schools at the end of last term that the classrooms as well as the pupils were breaking up. Instead, they waited until parents were already planning the lunch boxes and pupils were squeezing into their new shoes.

The department initially refused to publish a list of affected schools. When it did, the list turned out to be wrong. Three primary schools which don’t actually contain any RAAC were told to close — all the desks have had to be hauled back in.

I can only imagine the tone of the meetings being held in Whitehall as blame is traded. Meanwhile, crusty experts are unearthed by broadcasters to claim that they warned about this before the birth of Christ. When the education secretary fumed that no one had thanked her for doing “a fucking good job”, demanding that schools respond to a DfE survey, one could understand her frustration. But the comment was guaranteed to inflame ill feeling. It is five years since a roof caved in at a primary school which had previously been deemed safe: the DfE’s response was to send out a survey four years later.

Meanwhile a former civil servant accused prime minister Rishi Sunak of not, as chancellor, providing sufficient funding for repairs for England’s deteriorating schools estate — an allegation he strongly denies.

How ironic. During the relevant period, the UK had a prime minister who was happy to throw money at almost anything: HS2, the failed Covid test and trace programme, 40 new hospitals — which Johnson was obsessed by, despite being told that no such number was needed. (I was involved in several conversations about how to persuade him that refurbishing and expanding existing hospitals was more important).

But repairs don’t garner headlines. No one gets to cut a ribbon on a patched-up roof. So we end up with teachers and nurses putting buckets under leaky ceilings while politicians issue press releases about shiny new projects. A delayed upgrade to infrastructure attracts far less media fuss than public sector pay. When governments needed to find money, after the 2008 financial crisis, they targeted capital spending.

Even before the 2010 coalition, Gordon Brown had envisaged substantial cuts to capital spending. George Osborne continued that trajectory, cutting the things that were least visible and scrapping Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme. There were already concerns that the programme had overinflated costs: but more thought should have been given to the alternative.

The British state has long been addicted to short-cuts. “Buy nice or buy twice” I was once told by a hospital CEO locked into a 25-year PFI contract for a building where the doors didn’t open properly and the lifts malfunctioned. But the ultimate short-cut was using a cheap material which would expire on someone else’s watch.

RAAC seems to have been a gift for contractors looking to make a profit. It is much weaker than conventional concrete if water gets in and corrodes the steel bars holding it up — a likely scenario, given that it’s often used in flat roofs. And the problem is made worse by the way it is installed, making good workmanship vital. Scrutiny has been eroded because many of the public buildings created in the past few decades have been commissioned under a contract known as “design and build”. Professional engineers and architects draw up the initial design but their services are dispensed with when it comes to construction. The choice of materials is often left to the contractor, whose liability for defects is usually one year, and for the overall design 12 years at most.

As if RAAC weren’t enough, another problem looms on the horizon: prefabricated modular designs. Three brand new schools made like this haven’t even been allowed to open in case they fall down. A further two primary schools had to be demolished before they were even completed.

In relation to the total number of schools, those that seem likely to be at risk of collapsing in the near-term is tiny. But the number will grow. Concrete is not a problem: London’s iconic Barbican complex, and the Royal National Theatre, are still going strong after nearly 60 years. Letting cowboy builders use shoddy materials in schools has been a false economy, yet another sad aspect of the short-termism in which we all — voters, journalists, politicians — conspire.

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