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Public sector estates management - avoiding the next RAAC crisis

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23/11/2023

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Much has been made in recent months of issues arising from the use of reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) in public buildings.

While the task of identifying the scale of the problem and bringing in immediate steps to help mitigate damage is taking priority, we also need to think further ahead to ensure that this issue isn’t simply one of a string of problems facing the public estate in the coming years.

RAAC affects less than 1% of current school building stock. However, it is symptomatic of a far greater problem of the systematic underfunding and a lack of lifecycle-based management and maintenance strategies across a wide range of public buildings.

Whether it is a school, a library, a hospital, or any other council-owned property, we should be looking at how the public sector can better understand its estates. RAAC is one of several structural problems inherent in buildings delivered during the construction boom of the post-war period. Many of these buildings are still in use long after their intended lifespans, making maintenance critical to the safety of users.

The reality of funding gaps

Of course, funding is an issue. Many public sector organisations, including local authorities, manage budgets based on immediate risk, but if there is a lack of funding allocated to assessing risk over time, problems arise. If the right approach to long-term risk evaluation had been in place, the public sector might have been able to bring in mitigating strategies before the RAAC situation reached this critical point.

Effective evaluation requires in-depth surveys to get under the skin of a building and identify potential issues that lie out of sight. Such exercises cost money. However, the cost of not conducting in-depth stock condition investigations is potentially far higher, especially if more remedial work is needed to address issues that could have been uncovered and dealt with earlier.

Tackling the challenge together

Public sector colleagues are not alone when it comes to undertaking these investigations. SCAPE has considerable experience working in partnership with an expert supply chain and can support the public sector with strategic asset management; from plans, standards and specifications to compliance. We also offer practical help when it comes to undertaking detailed stock condition surveys, to enable clients to make informed choices about their buildings.

While new builds can be cost effective, retrofitting and maintaining existing stock is part and parcel of a local authority’s remit. Stock condition surveys across public sector estates should be intrusive and rigorous, underpinned by suitable and robust compliance regime schedules to cover areas such as maintenance.

The scale and complexity of this task will depend on the size of the estate being surveyed, but this work does not need to be completed by the public sector alone. Strategic partners, that either operate independently of the council or through partnering arrangements, can be commissioned to help. This provides dedicated teams needed to tackle the task of historic and reactive repairs, along with the ongoing maintenance of public sector buildings.

Using technology such as digital twinning and BIM to support stock condition surveying can also help to assess the existing components in buildings. In turn, it informs a robust, risk-based maintenance strategy and ensures that the composite parts of any new builds will not cause issues further down the line – avoiding another RAAC crisis.

Creating a consistent approach

We also need to consider how we ensure there is a common approach regarding stock condition surveying and plans across the country; one that allows the public estate to be managed safely and effectively, and in a way that supports the wider agenda of building back safer and greener.

For this to work nationally it needs to start at a local level. Every public sector body needs to have a long hard look at its estate and assess its approach. What are its mitigation strategies? Are stock condition surveys and asset management strategies and plans up to date and fit for purpose? Does the public sector understand the stock it has, and the risks within its estate?

It is worth pointing out that things are not all bad. The public sector continues to manage some very complex estates with limited budgets and, despite the challenges, they manage their compliance obligations very well. That said, we need to do things differently if we are to deliver a safer and more sustainable built environment and reduce the backlog of maintenance work on existing public buildings.

There will never be enough money to deal with these and other issues facing the public sector. However, taking a proactive and long-term approach to asset management and maintenance will reduce costs in the long run. This will not only allow the public sector to understand their property portfolios and the issues therein, but also to avoid relying on a firefighting approach when dealing with crises. Who knows, this might even free up funding for the development of new assets – providing further value to communities across the country.

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Written by:

Mark Robinson
SCAPE Group Chief Executive