EDINBURGH may have to knock down and rebuild some of the PFI/PPP schools closed on Friday, a top architect has warned. The cautionary advice from Professor Alan Dunlop came as Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, the EIS, called for an urgent review of all PFI contracts.

Professor Dunlop said he was worried that what had happened in Edinburgh is PFI “chickens coming home to roost”.

The visiting professor at Robert Gordon, a long-standing critic of PFI, said: “I’m not surprised, it was 2005 when I was speaking out about PPP and people were calling me a prophet of doom, but it’s based on experience of 25 years as an architect and it’s to do with the principal problem of the separation of the design team from the client body. Rather than the architect working for the client, the architect works for the contractor.”

The award-winning architect continued: “The worst possible scenario? You need to take the school down, or the building down, or the wall down, or the roof down, and reconstruct it – and reconstruct it in a proper way.”

City of Edinburgh Council were forced to shut 10 primaries, five secondaries and two special needs schools because of concerns over the safety of the buildings.

Around 9,000 children who were supposed to start back tomorrow after the Easter break will now be off until the council can either find space for them in other schools or guarantee safety in the closed buildings.

Edinburgh University has offered the council assistance, with many pupils in the five secondary schools just weeks away from exams.

In January the city’s Oxgangs Primary was closed after the winds of Storm Gertrude resulted in hundreds of bricks falling from the wall. Safety inspections discovered problems with the way in which the wall had been built, a problem that was then identified at three other Edinburgh schools.

All the schools were part of the same PPP1 contract, initiated by the city’s Labour administration in the late 1990s. There were issues with the width of wall cavities and the measures supposed to maintain the stability of masonry.

Just last week, Edinburgh Schools Partnership (ESP), the body set up by Miller Construction to look after the schools on behalf of the council, insisted the buildings were safe.

But contractors working on Oxgangs and the city’s St Peter’s primaries over the holidays identified serious structural defects on Friday.

The ESP were then unable to give the council assurances that these defects did not exist in the other PFI buildings.

The chief executive of the City of Edinburgh Council and senior education officials were updated by the ESP directors yesterday.

They were told more detailed structural surveys will carry on over the course of the week, with priority going to secondary schools where S4, S5 and S6 pupils need to prepare for exams next month.

Chief executive Andrew Kerr assured the citizens of Edinburgh they would not be “left footing the bill.”

“The safety of children and our staff is our main priority and I’m simply not willing to compromise on this. I fully recognise the significant inconvenience to parents caused by these closures but I am sure they will understand why we had to take these steps.”

Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), first created by John Major’s government in 1992, means that instead of paying for infrastructure through public taxation, private companies would pay the upfront costs and then, effectively, rent them back to the public sector over decades. This model of financing kept debt off the books and allowed councils and government to embark upon massive programmes of construction work.

The policy was a firm favourite of Labour/Lib Dem coalition governments at Holyrood. In 2002, the then first minister Jack McConnell froze payments from the School Building Improvement Programme unless councils accepted PFI, calling opposition to the policy “party political”.

Rates for PFI tend to be substantial. One report last year suggested the UK public sector owed £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of PFIs. EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan called for an inquiry.

He said: “The EIS welcomes that the safety of pupils and staff is being treated as a priority, while recognising that these short-notice closures will be highly inconvenient for pupils and parents.

“However, we must also question how such significant faults could escape normal building control scrutiny and we believe it is now necessary for an urgent review of all PPP/PFI contracts, including the terms of the private maintenance contracts which are often both expensive and extremely restrictive.”

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