As more than 100 schools have been told to shut buildings due to concerns a certain type of concrete is at risk of collapse, Chris Britcher reveals how the crisis was sparked in Kent five years ago...
According to chaos theory, if a butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon, it can lead to a devastating storm in Europe.
But what about this: When the ceiling of a school staff room in Gravesend crashed onto the floor one Saturday evening did it, almost exactly five years later, directly lead to hopes of a ‘super-hospital’ in east Kent being dashed?
It may seem a strange link to make, but there is a powerful argument that the two are directly connected.
At the heart of the issue lies the dryly-named RAAC – Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete.
The lightweight building material, notable for its bubble-like appearance, was used extensively in the construction industry from the mid-1950s to mid-1980s - a key component for wall, roof, floor and cladding construction.
According to the Local Government Association, it was used by a number of municipal architects “primarily in offices and schools”. Added to that list, significantly, are hospitals.
Often hidden behind ceiling coverings, it can often be overlooked. And failing to maintain and manage it is, unfortunately, a potential recipe for disaster.
Over time, the condition of many buildings has deteriorated. Hairline cracks have appeared and structural integrity weakened. Any water damage only exacerbates the problems. In short, they only have a 30-year safe life span.
The result? Just ask Singlewell Primary in Gravesend.
On Friday, July 6, 2018, there were concerns voiced over “structural stress” on part of the ceiling above a staff room, ICT area and administrative offices. A little over 24 hours later it came crashing down.
Fortunately, as it was a weekend, no one was beneath it at the time. But the school was forced to close for a week as repairs were carried out.
Kent County Council was called in and summoned structural engineers. It was they who discovered it was caused by RAAC and the issue escalated.
KCC wrote directly to all other local authorities warning them they had a potential major problem on their hands.
“It was the first reported case of RAAC,” reflected a KCC spokesperson.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the head teacher doesn’t want to discuss the school’s bizarre claim to fame.
It triggered a domino effect as authorities were put on alert – schools, public buildings and hospitals were all told to carry out significant surveys to check what underpinned them.
The Office for Government Property – which supports the government and the wider public sector to manage their estate more efficiently and effectively – issued a blunt warning in September 2022.
It said: “RAAC is now life-expired and liable to collapse – this has already happened in two schools with little or no notice.
“RAAC...is less durable than traditional concrete and there have been problems as a result, which could have significant safety consequences.”
For schools, it presented a major headache. Not only in terms of safety and the closure of certain ‘at risk’ areas, but also financially.
KCC-maintained schools saw the local authority (aka the taxpayer) foot the bill – academies had to pay out themselves. With the budgets of many already under strain, it added to their financial stresses.
In April of this year, the Institution of Structural Engineers issued guidance on how to identify and handle the problem to its members. By June, a host of schools across the county identified they had potentially dangerous RAAC forming part of the fabric of their buildings and were forced to close.
They included Birchington CofE, Sunny Bank Primary in Sittingbourne Palmarsh Primary in Hythe, St James' CofE in Tunbridge Wells and Godinton Primary in Ashford.
So what, you may be wondering, has any of this got to do with Canterbury not getting its new all-singing, all-dancing hospital?
Well, while surveys of schools were being undertaken, so too were checks on hospitals.
And across the country, a number were found to have RAAC in need of rapid repair – these included sites in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire and Surrey.
All of which had an impact on the government’s much-trumpeted New Hospitals Programme (NHP).
First announced in 2019 and officially launched the following year, the scheme was designed to breathe new life into an ageing hospital estate.
At its launch, it was announced 40 new hospitals would be built by 2030. What it hadn’t expected was for its plans to be altered in order to prevent the roof, quite literally, caving in on a number of existing sites.
It had long been a promise of then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to build more hospitals.
In 2019, he was caught on camera telling an audience at a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that among those to get a new hospital would be Canterbury. It quickly became apparent he had “clearly made a mistake” and the hopes for the hospital were dashed.
In a nutshell, the Canterbury proposals would see a realignment of the three major hospitals in east Kent – with, at its heart, a new multi-million pound hospital built on farmland next to the existing Kent and Canterbury Hospital.
The site was first built in 1937 and is now showing its age.
Developer Quinn Estates was set to build the shell of the hospital for free as part of a wider housing development of 2,000 homes on surrounding land, with the NHS having to find the money to equip it.
The trust behind the hospitals, East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust, put in a bid to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for a funding package of £460m.
When the NHP was relaunched earlier this year, the government spoke of a £20 billion investment into new hospitals. Canterbury’s hopes rose that it would be included on a list published last month.
But fast-tracked up the waiting list were five hospitals with a RAAC problem. Canterbury’s hopes were dashed again – along with a bid for funds for Medway.
They were, it should be said, far from alone. There were some 128 bids for funding – with only those with an RAAC issue being added.
The wait to reapply may be long. The DHSC is no longer accepting any further bids for the programme for the time being.
And with the costs of simply maintaining east Kent’s hospitals set to be at least £210 million over the next five years, just to maintain safe services, the strain on already threadbare resources will be felt.
The DHSC is also quick to point out that the NHS has asked the government to prioritise the rebuilding of those hospitals where RAAC is reaching the end of its lifespan “given the risks these buildings pose to patients and staff” – the full extent of which has only come to light since the announcement of the NHP back in 2019.
Speaking to KentOnline, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care explained: “We have now confirmed the five hospitals which will join the New Hospital Programme, which have significant amounts of RAAC and have been independently assessed as unsafe to operate beyond 2030.
“We are therefore prioritising these to address the most pressing safety risks and to ensure they are rebuilt and modernised in order to deliver the best care for patients.
“East Kent Hospitals has received substantial national investment in its estate, including £8.2m in 2020/21 to address maintenance backlogs and £27m between 2020 and 2022 for the expansion of emergency departments at the QEQM and William Harvey.”
So where now for Canterbury’s hospital hopes? The DHSC says new schemes will be considered through a “rolling programme of capital investment in hospital infrastructure to secure the building of new hospitals beyond 2030”.
But with details to be “agreed periodically” and, more significantly, a General Election on the horizon bringing with it the very real prospect of a change in the ruling party, the future is far from clear for the ambitious project.
Would the Canterbury super-hospital have been given the green light if it hadn’t been for the urgency to replace those with RAAC? The East Kent Hospitals Trust, when asked, deliberated and then said it “wouldn’t be appropriate” to comment. Read into that what you will.
But it certainly hasn’t helped.