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Schools start term with a new worry: structural collapse
We report on the GM schools affected by the national concrete scandal. Plus: The MEN is under pressure for its reporting of comments by hotel workers
Dear Millers — welcome to this week’s briefing, which has been composed in frankly stifling conditions. Those of you who have popped into The Mill’s newsroom for tea will know that we are in a lovely fifth-floor room in the Royal Exchange building on St Ann’s Square which has stunning views of the Manchester cityscape. Huge windows; lots of natural light. All of which is excellent for most of the year and less than optimal when temperatures soar. Tomorrow we will be doing our journalism from our bedrooms and from air-conditioned cafes and you will see the standard of our writing shoot up.
On the subject of the heat, Martin Miles, our weatherman, predicts a scorcher of a week, with the possibility that we will break Manchester’s September record of 28.4°C. More on that below, as well as our look at the local schools impacted by the ever-growing national scandal of collapsing reinforced concrete (known as RAAC), which is causing great concern for parents and massive political problems for the government. Trying to calm the public, Rishi Sunak gave an interview today in which he said “we expect that 95% of those schools won't be impacted by this” — which doesn’t sound as reassuring as perhaps he imagined.
This briefing also has lots of great things to do and read this week. Plus: why is the MEN being criticised for a story about a conversation between hotel workers?
This weekend’s FT reported on very excited reactions from staffers at CNN after former BBC director general Mark Thompson took over the reins at the US news network. As the article pointed out, Thompson is credited with transforming the fortunes of the New York Times during his tenure as chief executive, taking the company from the brink of financial ruin to a position of supreme strength in global media, with millions of paying subscribers. You might have read that piece and thought: Hang on, I recognise that name from somewhere…
Yes, that’s right, as we told you last week, Thompson is backing Mill Media Co as one of our brilliant investors. That funding round was reported in the Guardian last week and has been mentioned in today’s Times. There was a brilliant piece in The Conversation about it this weekend too, in which journalism lecturer Kate Heathman writes: “If new players like The Mill continue to grow and thrive, demonstrating that vital online ‘news quality obligation’, they could help to rebuild trust in local news.” We’ve also been shouted out in Semafor’s excellent media bulletin (join that one if you’re a media nerd — it’s superb), which writes: “Just before joining CNN, Mark Thompson invested in a Mancunian newsletter.”
If you’re not a Mill member yet, what a time to join. We’re growing, we’re expanding and we are just starting to plan our next members’ events, which will be as fun and fascinating as the series we did earlier this year. Members get eight extra editions every month and they are the absolute bedrock of this venture, funding our journalism and forming our community. Hit that button below.
Over the weekend, we published Sophie's stunning follow-up in the saga that is Burnage Garden Village. Her first piece, which was her first for The Mill, detailed the paranoia of residents who have become trapped in the village’s cooperative living arrangement. Her second looks at the tedious ideological struggle the residents have recently descended into. “Absolutely superb, what a great piece,” commented one reader. “As someone with a passing interest in co-operative living and the social dynamics of groups, this was both enlightening and engaging. Superb.” You hear that? It’s superb. You can see why here.
☀️ This week’s weather
Our local weatherman Martin Miles finally, miraculously, has some sunny news. “I believe the record September temperature in Manchester is 28.4°C which may well be broken this week,” he writes.
Tuesday ☀️ Early mist clearing then dry, very warm and mostly sunny. Turning breezy during the afternoon. Max 27C.
Wednesday ☀️ Dry with long spells of sunshine accompanied by light winds. Max 26C.
Thursday 🌤️ Very warm with patchy cloud and sunny spells. Feeling muggy. Max 29C.
Friday 🌤️ Cooler with variable cloud and sunny spells. Max 26C.
Weekend 🌤️ Mostly dry and still often sunny but feeling a little fresher with temperatures in the low to mid-twenties.
You can find the latest forecast at Manchester Weather on Facebook — daily forecasts are published at 6.15am.
The big story: Seven schools in Greater Manchester built with dangerous concrete
Top line: It seems that at least seven schools in Greater Manchester contain unsafe concrete that leaves their buildings at risk of collapse, with three having to delay reopening while they try to fix the problem. This is part of an escalating national scandal surrounding the building materials used in schools. One former civil servant has said it constitutes “a critical risk to life”.
Context: The schools have been built using Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC), a lightweight material that the government says was used in the construction of schools and other buildings between the 1950s and late 1990s. RAAC is “much weaker” than normal concrete — says the standing committee on structural safety — and it has a shorter lifespan.
Much of the RAAC used in schools is now assessed as unsafe. The government says that nationwide, 156 schools are confirmed to contain RAAC and 104 have been partially or entirely shut just days before the new academic year. However, a full list of schools possibly affected hasn’t been released.
Sky News has identified 83 schools affected by concrete safety fears, including five in Greater Manchester.
St Bernard's RC School in Bolton
Canon Slade High School in Bolton
St William of York Catholic Primary School in Bolton
Of these, St William of York is installing temporary support structures and hopes to have students back in on September 11. The MEN reports that St Bernard’s is also delaying the start of term, describing the situation in a letter to parents as “bitterly disappointing”.
All Saints C of E Primary in Newton Heath is another affected school which, along with Sale Grammar, Altrincham College and Canon Slade, has put in mitigating measures but will not be delaying the start of term.
In the last few minutes, St Andrew’s CE Primary, also in Bolton, has been identified as affected by unsafe concrete. It will reopen on Wednesday.
How did this happen? According to Jonathan Slater, permanent secretary at the Department of Education from 2016 to 2020, the government ignored repeated warnings about the growing risk of unsafe concrete in schools. Slater said the department was only given enough money to fix a third of the most at-risk buildings, telling the BBC:
We knew what was needed. We knew that a proper school rebuilding programme was going to be required, otherwise these sorts of panics would take place.
Crucially, Slater alleges that it was Rishi Sunak, when he was chancellor, who ignored advice to rebuild 400 schools and instead funded repairs at just 50 schools. That claim, which was first reported by the Today programme on Radio 4 this morning, puts the prime minister right at the centre of a row that is getting worse and worse for the government. Sunak says the allegation is “utterly wrong”.
Latest: Education secretary Gillian Keegan now says around 1,500 schools still don’t know whether they have been constructed using unsafe concrete. To help identify RAAC, 14,900 schools have been sent questionnaires, of which 10 per cent have not been returned.
“Of the 90 per cent that’s come back,” she told the BBC, “only 1 per cent have RAAC”. But by her own maths, that still means 15 schools that don’t know they’re at risk of collapse reopened to students today.
Keegan hasn’t covered herself in glory today: after doing an interview with ITV, Keegan was recorded asking: "does anyone ever say you've done a fucking good job because everyone else has sat on their arse and done nothing?"
Bottom line: We can expect the number of schools that are affected by the RAAC issue will grow in the days ahead. The subplot about Rishi Sunak’s personal involvement in not fixing schools with this type of concrete matters, but the bigger picture is more important. Since taking power in 2010, the Conservatives have significantly decreased capital investment, including in things like public buildings, as this great chart from the FT’s chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch shows. A country that doesn’t invest properly in its basic infrastructure can expect plenty of crises like this one.
🚨 We’re hiring!
The big thing we need your help with, following the funding round, is finding amazing candidates for the three roles we are hiring for this month. In the past, a lot of our best candidates have come from Millers sending our job ads to friends and colleagues, and we would hugely appreciate the same here.
Firstly, we are looking for a commercial wizard who can come in and focus on growing our income from subscriptions, sponsorships and events — we need someone who will love the challenge of joining a startup and building out the business side of our company.
Secondly, we are hiring a senior editor — an experienced journalist who loves organising, managing, editing and making an editorial operation really work. They will work alongside our senior editorial staffers Sophie and Joshi and will give us the extra capacity and leadership we need as we expand.
Finally, we need another staff writer in Liverpool who has writing flair and loves cracking open important stories for our sister publication The Post. The deadlines for those roles are all in the next month, so please do share the links.
We’re always very keen that our job ads reach candidates from diverse backgrounds — including people who might not have grown up in families where a media career was seen as being on the cards. If you have any tips for how we could get our job ads in front of a great range of people, please contact Hannah.
Your Mill briefing
On the national front: Today is reshuffle day for the Labour Party. Local MPs changing roles include deputy leader Angela Rayner, MP for Ashton-under-Lyne, who has been appointed shadow secretary of state for levelling up, replacing Wigan’s Lisa Nandy, who moves to international development, which is widely seen as a demotion given Nandy’s longstanding interest in regional inequalities. “Hearing the Lisa Nandy demotion was pretty brutal,” tweets longtime Miller and Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates, who is always worth a follow. Manchester Central’s Lucy Powell has been named shadow leader of the House, leaving the media and culture brief. The Guardian has an explainer on the winners and losers, which says that Oldham West and Royton’s Jim McMahon “dodged the inevitable” by quitting before he was demoted.
Two Manchester train stations rank among the top five in the UK for rates of cancellation. Manchester Victoria came second to Huddersfield with a cancellation rate of 10% (Huddersfield’s is 13%) and Manchester Oxford Road came joint third with Newcastle and York with a 9% cancellation rate. The data reinforces just how poor transport services in the North of England have become. Christine Wise, from Stalybridge, told the BBC how she can no longer rely on the train to get to work, driving instead to Ashton-under-Lyne to get the tram, which takes her around 40 minutes. "Over my lifetime, trains have never really run to time, but there weren't as many delays and cancellations as there are now. It's markedly worse."
A campaign improvement board has been called in to supervise how Stockport’s Labour group interviews potential candidates for next year’s local elections. Mill readers may recall the case of Matt Wynne, an ex-Labour councillor in Edgeley who said his selection process was unfairly managed by a left-wing faction of the local group, who focussed more on who was coming to sparsely attended branch meetings than who did actual council work. David Meller, the current leader of the group, told The Mill he welcomed the improvement board’s involvement: "I'm pleased with it. It shows that, as a group, we're beginning to move on from what happened in the last year."
Finally: Yesterday was a big day for cycling in Greater Manchester. The 102-mile Tour of Britain began in Altrincham and made its way to Ramsbottom, and the Velodrome reopened after a £27m refurbishment. The hope is the renovated Velodrome will help Manchester’s new bid to become the first European capital of cycling in 2024.
Home of the week
This two-bedroom end-of-terrace in Salford has a large bathroom and a cosy rear garden. The gorgeous mid-century furniture is presumably not included. It’s on the market for £265,000.
Selling your house? Need us to spark a bit more interest? Send Mollie the link and we will consider it for this very popular slot next week. Anything to help out our Millers.
Our favourite reads
The Spectator criticises a controversial MEN story about an alleged transphobic conversation in the Malmaison Hotel — which relied on a single source who admitted they were wearing headphones when they “overhead” a member of hotel staff saying “men are men, women are women”. The story was heavily criticised on Twitter after it was published, with one media lecturer tweeting: “A journalist should corroborate, ensure accuracy, not take at face value a half-heard conversation to produce hit-piece on hotel staff.” The Spectator writes: “It’s worth pointing out here that hotel staff generally work long hours for low wages on insecure contracts. Meanwhile, most papers — locally and nationally — are staffed with graduates from comfortable backgrounds. This is not exactly sticking up for the downtrodden…”
Nicholas Hitchon, Who Aged 7 Years at a Time in ‘Up’ Films, Dies at 65 — The New York Times
Nicholas Hitchon, a physics professor born in Littondale, north of Manchester, has passed away aged 65. He was one of the first children to be profiled in the BBC’s Seven Up! documentary series, which began with a group of 14 seven-year-olds in 1964 and caught up with them every seven years after that. Hitchon was known for being “talkative and unintimidated by cameras” as a child, but in later years would describe the documentary series as “totally dehumanising”. “You’re asked to discuss every intimate part of your life,” he told the Independent. “You feel like you’re just a specimen pinned on the board.”
“Influencer boxing” is a welcome distraction — The Economist
The Economist takes a look at the phenomenon of “influencer boxing” — YouTube and Instagram stars settling online beef via boxing matches in London and Manchester. Since then, the boundaries between “influencer boxing” and the professionals have “begun to dissolve”; although influencer boxers are trying valiantly to act the part, the quality of the amateur matches remains subpar. “Fans’ willingness to pay to watch an array of mediocre fights could be interpreted as evidence that the demand for boxing is increasing. Having seen the influencers in action, they may be persuaded to watch the best fighters on the planet. Then again, they may just like watching YouTube pranksters hitting each other.”
Our to do list
🎸 Manchester dreampop artists Diving Station are performing their new album live at LowFour Studio on Tuesday evening, which you might remember as the gorgeous music studio and bar on the rooftop of Deansgate Mews where we hosted The Mill’s third birthday party. Tickets here.
🧀 Levenshulme Old Library is hosting a relaxed life drawing social for experienced and beginner artists; an indulgent cheese board and a glass of wine are included in the ticket price Book a spot here.
🍷 It’s a beautiful sunny week, and we recommend making the most of the evenings with a glass of wine and a few small plates at Flawd, the slow-paced wine bar on New Islington Marina known for its eclectic selections of organic and natural wines. More here.
🧘 Platt Fields Market Garden is more than just community allotments and farmers’ markets in an idyllic setting away from the city — they also have a strong focus on wellness and wellbeing. This Wednesday evening, head down to Fallowfield for an evening of beginner-friendly yoga in the garden. Book here.
🍸 With a strong focus on affordability, JUICEBOX on Bridge Street is where to find delicious small plates that don’t break the bank. We recommend the £5 Negronis and daily fresh focaccia. More here.
🐸 Drop in to Manchester Museum anytime from 3pm, Tuesday-Friday, to meet the amphibian specialists and learn more about their great battle to save rare toads from the brink of extinction. For more froggy facts read Dani Cole’s 2021 story: With no visitors in sight, Manchester Museum oversees an epic struggle for survival.