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Better?  Greener? Faster? It must be safer

Graham Watts OBE
Chief Executive
Construction Industry Council

Sean O’Neill’s excellent opinion piece in The Times (‘A building free-for-all would betray Grenfell’, Jan 7) is a timely reminder that the PM’s exhortation to ‘build, build, build’ a recovery from the economic impact of coronavirus must not just be ‘better’, ‘greener’ and ‘faster’ but – above all else – it must be ‘safer’.

The news that the Report of the Grenfell Tower Inquiry is unlikely to be made until after the fifth anniversary of the tragedy is understandable given the delays caused by coronavirus but it must not become an excuse for inaction in terms of making people safe (and feel safe) in their homes.   The two government-funded programmes for remediating unsafe cladding on tower blocks started late but they are now well underway and a Building Safety Bill – fully supported by CIC and others in the construction industry – is due to enter parliament shortly.  The HSE will host the new Building Safety Regulator and we are urging the early creation of a ‘shadow’ regulator in anticipation of the legislation being approved by parliament.

There are two major systemic issues that have to be addressed by the industry and its clients.  The first is competence.  It is absolutely essential that everyone who works on high-rise residential buildings – and, in my opinion, on any building where vulnerable people sleep – has an enhanced level of competence to be able to perform their work safely as part of a competent team.   Organisations representing the construction industry, the fire safety sector, the built environment professions and the owners and managers of the building stock came together in 2017 to develop a framework of higher level competences, across all sectors, which have been published in two reports – Raising the Bar (August 2019) and Setting the Bar (October 2020) – and it is vital that all sectors implement the recommendations of these reports, which are being backed by a new national suite of standards from the British Standards Institution and in the proposed Building Safety Bill.

The second issue is a combination of the “Race to the Bottom” that typifies the procurement of construction  and the appalling business model of a contracting supply chain industry that mostly works on low profit margins and does not receive full payment until long after the project is completed.   This sets the scene for gaming the system, poor quality, product substitution and many other bad practices and it is a system that must be overhauled. 

Grenfell was a dreadful fire tragedy.   There have been many other instances of building failure in recent years that have concerned structural safety, for example, but where – thankfully – no lives have been lost.    The industry must take action now to improve the competence of its people and to eradicate the reasons for these failures at source.      

This is a full version of a letter published in The Times on 8 January 2021

Contributor: Graham Watts is the Chief Executive of the Construction Industry Council, a Member of the MHCLG Industry Response Group and Chair of its Competence Steering Group.