The Grenfell tragedy exposed the use of deadly construction methods in for-profit buildings. New evidence shows hundreds more public buildings may be at risk
A campaign group is calling for a national investigation into the safety of schools and hospitals constructed using controversial Private Finance Initiatives, following major safety concerns emerging from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.
Last year, the People vs PFI gained information they say shows major internal fire defects at a hospital in the north-west of England and schools in London.
An FOI response suggested there were defects in over twenty compartments of the hospital, enclosed areas that are supposed to act as barriers to the spread of fire and smoke.
In response to the request for ‘reports stating fire compartmentation was not compliant with contractual obligations’, the trust submitted an additional 360 documents.
It’s unclear whether the trust has acted on these fire safety reports and we are not naming it for this reason.
One response to the group’s requests from a London council showed major building defects in compartment walls, designed to stop fire, in one of the borough’s PFI-built schools.
The group said the concerns around PFI buildings are especially important in the light of the Grenfell disaster.
Up to 38 hospitals were identified as being ‘as dangerous as Grenfell’ by the National Fire Chiefs Council at the end of June.
Days later in response to cladding checks, it was announced two hospitals in London and a children’s hospital in Sheffield had failed fire safety checks.
People vs PFI said these investigations need to be taken further to look into the entire constructions of schools and hospitals, not just the external walls. A spokesperson for the campaign group said:
“There is growing evidence that buildings constructed ‘for profit’ are at greater risk of serious structural and fire safety defects due to a toxic combination of rolled back regulation, over reliance on self-monitoring and self-certification and an absence of local authority oversight.”
The group said the local authority responses to their hundreds of FOI requests they’d received suggest an endemic problem with the safety of PFI built sites, of which there are around 120 hospitals, over 1,000 schools and thousands of homes.
And now the Fire Brigades Union are supporting the group’s call.
“The FBU are extremely concerned about the risks posed by poor fire safety in hospitals and schools built ‘for profit’, which seems to go in tandem with an astonishing lack of care both for those who use these facilities and for the firefighters who are called to the scene when things go wrong.”
“The FBU would like to see the introduction of independent inspections of all public buildings before they are used. The current system where such checks can be carried out by the builders themselves is clearly unsafe.”
Last year a Radio 4 investigation uncovered over 1,200 individual building defects at Peterborough Hospital, an internal report concluding that the defects compromised the hospital’s safety and ‘the facility… is not fit for purpose’.
Responding to the findings, the then Tory MP and for Peterborough, Stewart Jackson, called for a full investigation by the Department for Health last year:
“As a matter of urgency… some form of taskforce is needed to ensure that the long term safety of hospitals is guaranteed… we don’t know if it’s ten hospitals or a hundred hospitals that have this problem.”
It appears these concerns were not, however, raised in parliament – and Mr Jackson did not respond to our calls for comment.
Hopefully now, with the horrible lesson of Grenfell, concerns about fire safety in public buildings will be taken seriously and a full scale public investigation will be put in motion.
Left Foot Forward will be working closely with People vs PFI in the coming months as their own investigation develops.
Oscar Webb is a reporter at Left Foot Forward. He tweets here.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.