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Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete: Public Buildings

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 6 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the extent of the problem of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete in public buildings other than schools.

My Lords, the Government have acted decisively to tackle the issue, taking a proportionate approach informed by experts. The Office of Government Property, which is part of the Cabinet Office, wrote to all government property leaders in 2019 and again in September 2022, highlighting safety notices on RAAC and signposting Institution of Structural Engineers guidance on identification and remediation. It is the responsibility of individual organisations such as departments, arm’s-length bodies or wider organisations such as NHS trusts, to manage their own buildings.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Answer, but there is something of a metaphor for the Government in this issue of RAAC—time expired and liable to collapse with little or no notice. Is the Chancellor going to agree to “spend whatever it takes” to fix the problems in housing, hospitals and other public buildings? The Minister just mentioned the Cabinet Office review, but what about the Ministry of Defence review into its buildings that I understood had to be completed by July? How many hospitals are going to be partially closed as a result of work on RAAC and will the Government list them in the way they have done for schools? Does the Minister agree with the head of the National Audit Office that getting value for money depends on doing the “unflashy but essential” things such as maintenance, in addition to what you might call a sticking-plaster approach that ends up costing more money? In short, can the Minister understand why some people think that this is an autoclaved aerated crumbling Government in need of replacement?

That was a huge array of questions more suitable for debate, but perhaps I can make clear that the Government have agreed to fund extensive RAAC mitigation works across the NHS and the education estate by capital funding allocations. We will consider the approach to any RAAC funding in other public sector estates on a case-by-case basis. As regards the MoD, the programme of surveys is ongoing, given the size of the estate, and I know that my right honourable friend the new Defence Secretary takes this matter very seriously.

My Lords, the Comptroller and Auditor-General wrote yesterday in the Times that the problems were caused by “underinvestment” in the physical estate and

“by the lack of a robust long-term programme of building maintenance and replacement”,

and suggested that that needs now to be urgently addressed. Can the Minister assure us that the Government are now willing to develop such a long-term programme and raise the level of investment in the public estate, or are they going to give in to the continuing demands from right-wing newspapers and their own Back Benches to cut taxes first and not put the money in?

The Government are investing and will continue to invest in public sector buildings. Take education: the Government have allocated £15 billion since 2015 to keep schools safe and operational. In this area, professional advice has evolved over time. Successive Governments since 1994 have managed the risk of RAAC and will continue to do so. I have explained the central advice given to help individual public sector bodies manage their responsibilities in the way that all building and property owners need to do.

My Lords, it is my understanding that four out of five schools have asbestos in them, as do many public buildings, including this one. If the concrete part of a building is now degrading and exposing the asbestos, at which point its disturbance makes it extremely dangerous, what are the Government’s plans to budget and implement a way to deal with the asbestos and the concrete at the same time?

As the noble Lords knows, there is of course a legal framework for managing asbestos through the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 and I refer to the expert advice and involvement of independent building experts that have played a very important part in identifying RAAC in places such as hospitals and managing that in a responsible way.

My Lords, the test of a good Government is not whether a crisis pops up on their watch that they have to deal with but how Ministers respond. There are two options—you can roll up your sleeves and get on with it or you can dither, delay, cut funding and blame others while expecting to be thanked. As the scale of the schools problem emerges, and given that the Government cut Building Schools for the Future funding, the Minister said just now that the Cabinet Office wrote to all government departments in 2019. Can she tell the House whether the Government now have a grasp of the extent of the problem to which courts, hospitals and other buildings used by the public are affected by this? If they have, given that the letter went out in 2019, when will that information be published?

Actually, we have rolled up our sleeves in this case, to quote the noble Baroness. We wrote in 2019, and again in 2022 after Covid. A great deal of management on a risk-based basis has been undertaken across the public sector, drawing on professional expert advice, because it is very important that that is done. More recently, in June 2023, the Cabinet Office set up an expert working group under the OGP to look at RAAC. Of course, that has been meeting very frequently since the information, which has been the subject of other Question sessions, became available in schools in August.

My Lords, we are learning about a range of RAAC in all building types across the nation’s estate, from theatres to hospitals—sometimes in small amounts, sometimes in big amounts—so it is a complex picture that will need remedying or, crucially, mitigation. Does my noble friend agree that the approach that government takes includes advice, as she described briefly, from technical experts such as the Institution of Structural Engineers? If so, can she say more?

I cannot help but agree with my noble friend: it is absolutely right to follow expert advice in this sort of case. That is why the OGP wrote out on a number of occasions, and it is why my right honourable friend in the other place, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, had discussions with the Institution of Structural Engineers only this week. We are pursuing this, but we are ensuring that those who are responsible are putting in the effort and making the changes that are necessary—and we are giving central support, as I explained, in relation to education and health.

My Lords, many universities are likely to suffer from this problem, and some, of course, also have hospital trusts associated with them. The noble Baroness said it was up to NHS trusts and individual institutions to manage their estates, but she knows that that is not a sustainable position, because this problem is not evenly spread across the sector and will impact very heavily on individual organisations. What more will the Government do and announce in the near future to assist those affected? I declare an interest as chancellor of Cardiff University.

I am grateful to hear from the noble Baroness about the situation in the university sector. Of course, they will be taking their responsibilities seriously. As I know from having been involved in these sorts of organisations, the governors always spend a lot of time being concerned about, and taking professional advice on, the safety and state of buildings. Universities and hospitals, where RAAC mitigation work has been going on since 2019, are a bit different from schools, because the estates are usually concentrated in a smaller number of buildings and there are usually dedicated teams of trained estate professionals who are able to monitor and maintain the buildings.

My Lords, when the noble Baroness says that public bodies should accept their responsibilities, is she not aware—of course she is—that capital expenditure limits in the public sector are set by central government? Very often, the specifications for building materials are specified through government machinery and advice. After the survey of the NHS in relation to RAAC, why is the target to get rid of it 2035? Why will it take another 12 years?

One of the reasons for that is that some of the hospitals in which we have identified RAAC need a full replacement. They will be part of the rebuilt hospitals programme, which is due to mature by 2030. DHSC has published a media fact sheet on RAAC in the NHS, which I think the noble Lord might find very helpful in the health context.