How did they not see this coming? Normally that question is one of the laziest you can ask in Westminster: easy for pundits or opposition politicians to say with a confident flourish in hindsight when they hadn’t seen it coming beforehand, either. But in the case of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), everyone saw this coming.
The reason the school concrete crisis is so potent is that ministers have known for years about the presence of RAAC in public buildings (decades, in fact: it was in the late 1990s that concerns started to emerge about problems with this material). Yet the announcement that schools would have to close buildings last week still came as a shock because no one had prepared the ground for it.
Today, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is giving a statement to the Commons about the school building closures. She will be pressed by MPs from all sides to clarify whether schools will be fully reimbursed by the government. Yesterday, Jeremy Hunt insisted that the government will ‘spend what it takes’ to fix this, but the Treasury has since clarified that this will come from the existing school buildings budget, rather than new money.
Tory MPs are on the warpath about this as much as Labour, with figures like Priti Patel already criticising the approach. There will be plenty more who feel the pressure from constituents to speak up today.
On the Today programme, former permanent secretary to the Department for Education Jonathan Slater claimed Rishi Sunak had halved the number of schools in the government’s rebuilding programme when he was chancellor. It was already difficult for ministers to explain why the crisis had become so last minute, with the announcements just days before term started.