The Appleton School in Benfleet, Essex, 35 miles east of London, is believed to be among at least 104 schools closed or only partially open as the fall term gets underway due to a national scare over unsafe concrete. File Photo by Trevor Harris/Appleton School, Benfleet/Wikimedia Commons
Sept. 5 (UPI) -- British Schools Minister Nick Gibb on Tuesday said the Treasury slashed a 2021 bid for funding to rebuild schools constructed with unsafe concrete prone to collapse, as the issue forced many schools to close last week.
Gibb told the BBC that the Department for Education two years ago asked for funding to rebuild 200 of the affected schools constructed with Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete but the Treasury -- then headed by current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak -- slashed the bid to 100 and eventually just 50 schools.
"Fifty school buildings a year is what the system can cope with and of course we put in a bid for 200. Of course, the Treasury has bids from all those other priorities across Whitehall," he told the BBC.
Gibb sought to refute a claim by the department's former permanent secretary that it had asked the treasury for the money to rebuild 300 to 400 schools a year before the request was trimmed down.
A further $5 billion in revenue funding had been set aside since Sunak became prime minister in October bringing the total in next year's budget to a record $74.8 billion, said Gibb.
Gibb's comments came as at least 156 schools and colleges in England remained partially or completely shut at the beginning of the fall semester after safety officials said the "life-expired" pre-cast lightweight concrete used in the schools was liable to collapse with little or no notice.
Sunak said any suggestion he was responsible for withholding funds to refurbish schools was "completely and utterly wrong" while seeking to assure that most of England's schools would continue normal operations.
"Of course, I know the timing is frustrating, but I want to give people a sense of the scale of what we are grappling with here: there are around 22,000 schools in England and the important thing to know is that we expect that 95% of those schools won't be impacted by this," Sunak told Sky News.
Gibb also rejected accusations from the public spending watchdog that the government was too focused on showboat projects such as HS2 -- a 225 mph high-speed rail line linking London with the north of the country -- at the expense of the less glitzy work of maintaining aging public buildings.
"The underlying challenge is that adequately funding responsible capital programs for our public services leaves less for higher-profile projects," National Audit Office Comptroller Gareth Davies said.
"Failure to bite this bullet leads to poor value, with more money required for emergency measures or a sticking plaster approach."
Gibb was unable to provide a date when the problems with Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete might be resolved or how much it would cost as the government was waiting on the outcome of inspections and questionnaires sent out to schools but that it had brought in more outside help.
In addition to ramping up the number of surveying firms, Gibb authorized schools to engage any Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors-registered surveyor directly.
"From those surveys, we now know that 156 schools have RAAC and in 52 of them we've already taken action, where it was regarded as critical," Gibb said.
Opposition Labor's Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson rebuked the government for what she termed "utter complacency."
"The concrete crisis shows the utter shambles of this government. Ministers are leaving children in chaos and running from responsibility. The Conservatives have failed our children.
"The Education Secretary needs to get a grip, own up to the scale of the problem, and publish the list of all schools with dangerous crumbly concrete now."