This week, Charlie discusses the ongoing RAAC (Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete) crisis and advises us on what we can take away from the crisis.
Once again, we have a business continuity incident dominating the headlines. When business continuity was first conceived in the 1990s, it focused on what we should do if the buildings our organisation worked in became unavailable. It was initially driven by a response to the London bombings by the IRA, and organisations embraced the new concept of work area recovery to ensure they had an alternative site to move to. Until COVID-19, the loss of a building was the primary concern for business continuity. COVID-19 and the ability to work from home largely resolved this issue. If you could work from home permanently, part-time, or occasionally, then the strategy for coping with the loss of a building was to work from home. This addressed the issue for many business continuity managers, and the loss of buildings was no longer seen as a major risk. However, as with the NATS incident I discussed last week, every so often, an incident arises that reminds us of the importance of physical buildings and the need to plan for them.
RAAC was a building material first used in the European construction boom that began in the 1950s, and remained a popular building material until the 1990s. It was primarily used in floors and roofs and had a lifespan of 30 years. Due to its honeycomb composition, if it gets wet, the steel bars within it can start to rust, causing it to lose its strength. It was used in a wide range of private and public buildings, including schools, hospitals, and higher education facilities.
So, what can we learn from this incident?
- This incident in the UK has been a classic ‘Grey Rhino’ incident and we are currently at Stage 4: Panic. This means we recognise the need for action, but we’ve delayed taking action until the risk is imminent. Due to the urgency, we may not be thinking clearly. I believe this incident is a Grey Rhino because many people were aware of the risks and issues associated with the material, but did little or nothing because the solutions were not easy. One incident that drew attention to the material’s problems was the ceiling collapse at Singlewell Primary School in Kent in 2018, which fortunately occurred on a weekend, so no one was injured. A timeline of who knew what is available in The Guardian newspaper here, and it’s evident that this has been an issue for several years.
- Dealing with a risk with little personal experience and that is hidden from view can be challenging. Many building owners may not even be aware that the material is present in their buildings. Few records were kept detailing the material’s use, and it’s often hidden from view, requiring specialised contractors to survey for its presence. Limited research has been conducted on the material, and those responsible for buildings may have little knowledge of it. When decision-makers are dealing with incomplete scientific information, they must be cautious in determining their response.
- Asbestos is another hazard in schools, but it poses a risk only if disturbed. Searching for RAAC while conducting building surveys becomes more complex due to the need not to disturb asbestos and the requirement for specialised surveyors who can work in areas where asbestos might be found. Given the widespread nature of the RAAC issue, there is likely a limited number of available contractors, making it challenging to secure their services at the moment.
- If you respond at the last minute, your response will be based on incomplete information. The list of affected schools was only published 30 minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions this week. This list only includes schools that have been surveyed, so it is likely to grow. Additionally, there is still no list for the wider public sector, so this incident will likely worsen.
- When conducting Business Impact Analyses (BIAs), one of the “old skool” questions used to be ‘What if the worst-case scenario occurred at the worst time?’. For students impacted by the loss of their classrooms, this is indeed the worst time. Some have already been sent home for remote learning. This situation occurring at the start of the school year is especially problematic, as students have not yet settled into their courses, and many have already been affected by COVID-related remote learning, compounding the impact.
- School maintenance budgets have been progressively reduced, and school modernisations have been limited due to funding constraints. This exacerbates the RAAC problem because if RAAC or the environment around it is not properly maintained, the material is more likely to deteriorate. How often do we see incidents caused by lack of maintenance leading to catastrophic failures, which organisations then rush to remediate, even though the situation could have been prevented? While RAAC does have a shelf life, proper building maintenance would significantly reduce the risk.
- Not many people have much sympathy for politicians, but managing this incident is extremely challenging for them. Firstly, it will take a considerable amount of time to determine the full extent of the country’s exposure, resulting in a continual stream of negative headlines as new buildings are discovered and their operations are impacted. This makes it difficult for politicians to put an end to the incident and move forward. Secondly, there is limited funding available to address this problem, and the demand is enormous, so rectifying the issue will take several years, if not decades. Lastly, the decision to use the material was made up to 60 years ago, so current politicians were not the ones who authorised or oversaw its use as a construction material. However, they are now responsible for managing the consequences.
While the loss of a building may not always constitute a business continuity incident, many of us have the ability to work from home. Nevertheless, we need to consider the activities conducted within buildings and whether working from home is a viable alternative. For schools, teaching pupils via video conference is a suboptimal alternative, making the physical building crucial. RAAC exhibits all the elements of a classic business continuity incident, so we should observe and learn to ensure our plans and preparations can effectively handle this type of event.