Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has come under fire from colleagues for her “unilateral” decision to determine which school buildings need to close as part of the concrete crisis, Sky News has learned.
Ministers elsewhere in Whitehall fear she has opened a “Pandora’s box” by setting a more cautious than necessary standard that could affect a huge array of public buildings, including housing stock, local authority buildings and the military estate.
The education secretary has made clear she took the most cautious of the options presented by officials over which buildings to shut last week.
Sky News understands that the decision was signed off by the education team in Number 10 with the PM’s knowledge.
However there was no cabinet office meeting and no ministerial follow-up for days after the issue emerged.
The Department for Education “belatedly” shared the technical advice on why they shut school with others in Whitehall – some of whom disagree it shows a need to shut schools
Sky News understands she “informed” the relevant Whitehall committees, which have been dealing with the issue of crumbling concrete for years. However, she did not fully consult or secure agreement for her move, believing she needed to move fast
Ministers are worried they could now face massive disruption and spiralling costs if other public buildings are now held to the same precedent set in the Department for Education.
“This is suboptimal,” said a senior Whitehall figure. “She has made a unilateral decision. It’s not been resolved, and it’s a bit of a mess.”
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Sources close to the education secretary say the decision was never intended to act as a precedent since the school estate is unique. “We are being over-cautious,” said an education source.
There are tens of thousands of school buildings in disparate parts of the country and often do not have easy access to estate managers, monitors or experts who can monitor the state of buildings, and the buildings themselves are unusually crowded.
However, there is concern elsewhere that the decision by Ms Keegan may nevertheless appear like a precedent, and if other public buildings are not held to the same standard they will have to fix them or face legal risk and political pressure.
Responsibility for the issue will now fall to the Government Property Agency, but ministers are already concerned about the implications for budgets.
“There is a big fear this is going to spiral,” said a Tory source.