Eight private finance initiative (PFI) schools built by one of Britain’s biggest private contractors have fire safety issues, The Independent can disclose. The revelation raises disturbing questions about the safety of public facilities built by the private sector.
Balfour Beatty’s deal to build the group of new schools in Knowsley, Merseyside, was hailed as a trailblazing example of the Labour government’s Building Schools for the Future programme when it was struck in 2007.
However, a kitchen fire at one earlier this year revealed potentially serious problems with the fireproofing, after smoke spread into an adjoining stairwell. If the blaze had been more serious the smoke could have affected children evacuating the building.
The incident at Knowsley Park led to a review of fireproofing at all eight Balfour Beatty-built schools in the local area. In every case, the fireproofing was found to be sub-standard.
Fire hazards at the schools had already been a concern for Knowsley Council after Channel 4 last year exposed problems at a Birmingham hospital, also built by Balfour Beatty under PFI. Many of the hospital’s fire dampers – shutters which automatically close to stop fire and smoke spreading through ventilation ducts – were installed in positions making them impossible to check and maintain. Of those which were accessible, many failed maintenance tests.
As a result of the Channel 4 story, Knowsley Council ordered checks on all the fire dampers in its PFI schools. More than 60 were found to be inaccessible.
Knowsley Council told The Independent that urgent work was now being carried out to rectify the problems with the dampers and the wider fireproofing issues around the schools. Balfour Beatty set up a PFI company called Transform Schools (Knowsley) to run the project when it won the original tender. Last year it sold the company to an investment firm called Dalmore for £42m – a significant profit on its original investment.
A spokesman for Dalmore said: “Transform Schools (Knowsley) is aware of issues with the integrity of the passive fire safety provisions across the PFI estate having carried out surveys of all facilities. The company is now working with our supply chain to rectify all issues. All costs associated with the works will be borne by the private sector contractors. The Fire Authority and the Council’s Corporate Health& Safety team have confirmed that the schools are safe to occupy and remain open.”
In a statement, Balfour Beatty said: “Balfour Beatty is working with Transform Schools (Knowsley) to an agreed programme of works to rectify known issues with the fire safety provisions.”
Knowsley Council said: “As a result of the issues at Knowsley Park, surveys were commissioned to cover all of the PFI school estate, which has found similar issues. A detailed programme of work has been agreed with Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service to resolve the issues and this is being expediently implemented.”
PFI supporters say private contractors generally get major projects done quicker, cheaper and to a higher standard than the public sector. However, these claims are increasingly disputed. A report in 2011 by a Treasury Select Committee of MPs comparing PFI with traditionally procured projects said “we have seen reports which found out that building quality was of a lower standard in PFI buildings”.
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