Ministers refuse to mop up

Neil Munro

Scottish Office says councils should have insured against flooding from burst pipes

A bill for millions of pounds worth of flood damage to Scotland's schools is set to provoke a bitter row between local authorities and Government ministers. There are fears that council budgets will be hammered once again.

The TES Scotland has learnt that the Scottish Office expects councils to have insured against burst pipes. But with the exception of Central Region none has. Officials argue that under normal circumstances premiums would exceed the cost of repairs. Most councils therefore "self-insure", setting aside cash for emergencies.

This means, however, that authorities cannot take advantage of the Government's Bellwin scheme, introduced to defray emergency costs arising out of severe weather conditions. The scheme, which requires approval from the Treasury and the Scottish Secretary before it can be applied, excludes "the cost of dealing with any damage or loss that is insurable under normal insurance policies".

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Office observed that decisions not to insure council properties were a matter for authorities themselves. The Bellwin scheme was not a substitute for failure to insure against insurable risks, she said.

In a message that will have an ominous ring for councils, the Scottish Office added: "Local authorities have substantial resources at their disposal for repairs and refurbishment to buildings. It is for them to consider how best to use these to meet local needs and circumstances. Damage to schools caused by burst pipes should, of course, be covered by insurance."

The Scottish Office also feels that authorities could have done more to prevent the worst effects of the damage, which led to the closure of almost 500 schools on Monday.

George Kynoch, the local government minister, walked into a political storm this week when he suggested that the decision on Monday to shut all schools in Grampian, the region worst hit, would not have been necessary if prompter action had been taken. This put a severe strain on working parents, Mr Kynoch added.

Grampian has put a minimum estimate of Pounds 1 million on the cost of repairing pipes, drying out buildings and repairing water and heating systems. Bruce Robertson, the region's depute director of education, said the total bill would not be known for some weeks until the cost of replacing damaged computers and textbooks was calculated.

Mr Robertson refuted suggestions that checks had not been made during the holiday period. In one case, a janitor had inspected his primary school at 9am. When he returned at 4pm, the building was under several feet of water.

"You have got to remember the context of weather conditions which were more severe than in Moscow," Mr Robertson said. "We had temperatures as low as -22 degrees at one point and then a rise of 19 degrees during one 24-hour period. We do have frost-free heating systems in our schools but they could not operate in extremes of that kind."

Although most schools had reopened by the end of this week, hundreds of pupils face dislocation and disruption for some time to come. Grampian has had to transfer pupils from three primaries to other schools and split up classes at another two.

Central Region has made alternative arrangements for the 1,800 pupils at Graeme High, and has hired the assembly hall at Falkirk College to hold prelim exams which start next Monday. Pupils from Denny primary in Falkirk will not be educated there for at least the next two weeks. Strathclyde says around 30 schools are likely to be closed for weeks, although their pupils' will be educated elsewhere. Lothian expects "minimal closures" next week; its main problem has been finding materials because of the heavy demand from other flood victims.

The only authorities not severely affected were Borders and the three island areas. Borders had Pounds 35,000 worth of damage at 35 schools, but the only pupils sent home were from a nursery class at Balmoral primary in Galashiels.

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Neil Munro

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