On 31 August 2023, the UK Government published new guidance for RAAC in education settings following sudden failures of RAAC planks graded as ‘non-critical’ over the summer. This raised concerns about higher safety risks in buildings with RAAC.
RAAC: what it is, where it is used, why it can be a hazard
Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) is a form of concrete with a bubbly structure. It was used between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s for roof planks, wall panels, and floor planks. RAAC is lightweight, cost-effective, and energy efficient. It was ideal to build ready-to-assemble structures and for critical public sector buildings which needed to be built quickly.
However, due to its structure, RAAC has a shorter lifespan than traditional concrete. Over time, cracks can lead to sudden collapse. RAAC is also prone to water penetration and corrosion. Poor assembly processes (e.g. insufficient support or heavy materials on top of RAAC panels) can also lead to weaknesses.
Results of first stage inspections in Wales and next steps
National Education Union (NEU) Cymru called for more clarity on the issue of RAAC in schools and colleges on 1 September 2023.
The Education Minister, Jeremy Miles, told the Senedd on 12 September: “Are our schools in Wales safe? (…) Yes, they are.”
Following this, on 22 September 2023, he, and the Finance Minister, Rebecca Evans, announced that the first stage of school inspections was complete.
Four schools were identified with RAAC across Wales: Ysgol David Hughes and Ysgol Uwchradd Caergybi in Anglesey, Ysgol Maes Owen in Conwy, and Ysgol Trefnant in Denbighshire.
As of 22 September, Ysgol David Hughes had reopened; Ysgol Trefnant was about to reopen and Ysgol Uwchradd Caergybi was partially open, both with upcoming remediation work in closed affected areas. Ysgol Maes Owen was open and undergoing remediation in affected areas. The second stage of the process, i.e. detailed inspections, is expected to end in December 2023.
The first stage of inspection of further education buildings was announced as complete on 15 September. Only a small part of the Cardiff and Vale College estate had been identified as having RAAC.
RAAC was also found at Cardiff and Bangor universities. The affected areas have been closed.
As of 15 September, the second stage of detailed inspections for further education buildings was still being carried out. Universities are making their own assessments via the Association of University Estates Directors.
On 13 September, the Health Minister, Eluned Morgan, reported that RAAC has been found in two hospitals, Withybush Hospital in Pembrokeshire and Nevill Hall Hospital in Monmouthshire; one decommissioned canteen building at Bryn y Neuadd Hospital in Conwy; and one non-public remote plant room at Bronglais Hospital in Ceredigion.
She said the surveying work was expected to be completed later in the autumn. She also asked her officials to commission the NHS to carry out RAAC investigations across the NHS Estates portfolio.
The NHS Estate dashboard report 2021/2022 highlights other safety concerns for Welsh hospitals beyond RAAC. The backlog of repairs associated with high or significant risk amounted to almost £650m across seven health boards and two NHS trusts for 2021/2022.
On 5 October 2023, the Deputy Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Dawn Bowden, provided a summary of RAAC investigations in cultural and sporting venues (Table 1).
Table 1: State of the RAAC investigations in cultural and sporting venues on 5 October 2023
|Institution||Locations inspected||RAAC identified?||Stage of the investigation on 5 October 2023|
National Library of Wales
Arts Council of Wales (ACW)
|Theatr Clwyd||X||Results confirmed; ACW is planning to send a survey to all art venues in October|
|National Centres in Sophia Gardens and Plas Menai||X||Results confirmed|
|Local museums part of the Museum Accreditation scheme
|✓- Small risk areas||Assessment of risk areas|
|✓||Further investigation for identified sites is almost complete|
The Welsh Government has formed a cross-government group to manage the action for wider public sector buildings. Ystadau Cymru, established by the Welsh Government to encourage collaborations for the management of the public estate, has produced a survey to identify RAAC in public buildings.
The Welsh Government requested a high-level summary of the situation from local authorities and other organisations with public property portfolios by 15 September. It also asked for more detailed information for sites with RAAC “within 28 days” to determine further work.
The Welsh Government asked stock-holding local authorities to investigate the presence of RAAC in social housing and Registered Social Landlords to assess their properties via Community Housing Cymru.
The Welsh Government published RAAC guidance on 8 September, which was updated on 19 October. The guidance explains that surveying and remediation costs are the responsibility of the building or estate owners, landlords or those responsible for managing the premises.
The Finance Minister told the Senedd on 13 September 2023 that most of the remediation works for the public estate will use money already allocated for other purposes. She said it should not represent large costs in the current financial year.
The Welsh Government has already made £12.8m available to support remediation work at Withybush Hospital.
Differences and tensions between Welsh and UK Governments
In England, as of 16 October, 217 state-funded education settings (schools, nurseries, further education colleges) had been confirmed with RAAC. 42 hospital sites had been confirmed as of 19 October. More information about the UK Government’s response for education buildings and hospitals can be found on its website.
On 4 September, the Education Minister said: “It is hugely regrettable that the evidence that has apparently been developed over the summer has been withheld until the night before the first day back of term”.
He added on 12 September that changes to UK RAAC guidance were “unexpected”. On the same day, the Rural Affairs Minister, Lesley Griffiths, said the Welsh Government was invited belatedly to RAAC meetings organised by the UK Government.
However, the UK Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, said on 4 September that her officials “have been engaging urgently with the devolved Administrations to discuss our findings and offer support (…).”. She also highlighted that education is devolved to Wales. On 6 September, she stated that the Welsh Government reacted late to the issue.
The First Minister, Mark Drakeford, told the Senedd that the impact of decisions made before devolution should be the responsibility of the UK Government. However, the Secretary of State has said funding is the responsibility of the Welsh Government since education is devolved.
Senedd Research acknowledges the parliamentary fellowship provided to Amandine Debus by the Natural Environment Research Council and Sydney Charitos by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, which enabled this article to be completed.