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Business News/ News / Britain’s Crumbling Schools Expose a Bigger Crisis
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Britain’s Crumbling Schools Expose a Bigger Crisis

Chronic underinvestment in infrastructure is putting the country’s citizens at risk. 

Britain’s Crumbling Schools Expose a Bigger CrisisPremium
Britain’s Crumbling Schools Expose a Bigger Crisis

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- After 13 years in government, Britain’s Conservatives are struggling to offload blame when things go wrong. In the latest headache for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, more than 100 schools in England couldn’t reopen as usual this month because they’re in danger of collapse. The government was right to take precautions, but not to attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue. In fact, the closures underscore a broader infrastructure crisis the country has neglected for too long.

The affected schools contain what’s known as reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete, or RAAC, which was widely used in postwar construction because it was cheap, light and easy to build with. Other public buildings, including hospitals and major airports, also have the stuff in their structures. The problem isn’t so much the bubbly concrete itself (which has been widely used in Japan, Turkey and elsewhere) but that it has been left in place well past its useful life of 30 to 40 years.

The vulnerabilities have long been known to authorities. After the roof panel in a primary school collapsed in 2018, fortunately during a weekend, schools and local authorities were told to run checks. By last year, a Department of Education report rated the potential for a school-building failure to cause death or injury as “very likely." Instances of falling concrete this summer made the issue urgent.

Why wasn’t action taken sooner? Cheaper building materials require regular and costly maintenance. Britain’s education department — citing political realities and constraints in the construction sector — consistently failed to request adequate funds for improvements. Successive Tory governments have granted even less. The school repair budget is 40% below the £5.3 billion a year that auditors believe is needed to mitigate the most serious risks to existing buildings. Concerns about building safety also impair learning and staff morale.

The impact of underinvestment isn’t limited to schools: It can be seen in the state of hospitals, railways and other infrastructure. It discourages private investment, harms productivity and hampers economic growth. Yet simply spending more government money isn’t an option. UK borrowing levels are already high and rising debt interest costs have reduced room for fiscal loosening. Taxes are at their highest level since the 1940s and construction costs have risen, with Brexit contributing to a shortage of workers.

If Britain is to keep its existing infrastructure working, let alone build for the future and spur productivity gains, it must make better decisions with the resources available. That’s tricky when the political incentives are stacked so heavily in favor of short-term policies. Former Tory cabinet minister David Gauke has argued for an independent body to evaluate public spending based on expected long-term benefits and to make the results public. The Labour Party, which polls currently suggest is likely to form the next government, says it will create a new “Value for Money" office — a promising idea, though details of how it would work are vague. Whatever the model, transparency and incentives for strategic investment are essential to counter the bias toward day-to-day spending.

Less churn would also help. One-year budget cycles, changing fiscal rules, and ministers who rotate in and out of departments in a matter of months lead to high levels of uncertainty and stop-start funding. With investment delayed, costs inevitably rise. A more nimble, less centralized approach would allow properly funded local authorities to play a bigger role in identifying needs and directing resources.

Making buildings safe should be the priority now. But ultimately, it’s the plumbing of government, as much as the crumbling concrete in schools, that needs fixing.

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Published: 17 Apr 2024, 01:20 AM IST
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