Construction’s ’fundamental’ problem with procurement is making ’good companies complicit in bad outcomes’, according to the head of the industry’s leading certification body
Claire Curtis-Thomas, chief executive of the British Board of Agrément (BBA), told MPs that the lack of money on the table was leading major contractors to cut costs and ‘subbie-bash’ smaller firms into finding cheaper products.
Speaking yesterday at a government select committee on Judith Hackitt’s post-Grenfell review of building regulations, Curtis-Thomas said: ‘Unless you address procurement – which is the absolute fundamental problem here – you can talk about standards all you like.
‘A standard retrofit is going to cost £1 million. When they [contractors] start a project they know they only have £600,000 before they start running at a loss.
’Once the contract has been won is they [contractors] go about “subbie bashing” – they go to subcontractors and say we haven’t got a lot of margin here, how we going to make the margin up?’
Curtis-Thomas, a former MP for Crosby, said the BBA’s clients had been told to swap systems for cheaper options, or that contractors decided to purchase a part of the system and substitute it with cheaper parts.
The problem begins at the start of the procurement stage, said Curtis-Thomas, when clients often choose best price over quality.
She added: ‘I spoke to a client which bid for a job last week, one of 11 tenders submitted. They were second on price, first on quality. They lost out to a company – and this is now post-Grenfell – that was top on price and last on quality.’
Curtis-Thomas’ comments were echoed by the RIBA’s Andrew Dobson, who also appeared before MPs to give evidence from the organisation.
Asked by the committee how to achieve the ‘culture change’ Judith Hackitt called for in her review, Dobson said the industry required ‘a prod’, adding: ‘We are a very fragmented industry and we’ve got very low margins in many branches of the industry and quite a lot of risk pushed down the supply chain.’
Dobson said while the RIBA agreed with the calls to ban combustible cladding he warned against ‘the focus on one issue’ and said that fire safety building regulations needed to be looked at ‘in the round’.
He added: ‘It seems inconceivable that some regulation wouldn’t come into play, as the public does need some action now.
’But in the longer term review, it is about [asking] what is this group of high-risk buildings, what is the total system that Approved Document B is trying to promote?’
The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government said it would be urgently raising safety concerns with the government after Curtis-Thomas told the committee she was aware of at least 30 buildings that now did not comply with fire safety regulations after the removal of aluminium composite cladding panels.
After the session, committee chair Clive Betts MP said: ‘We were extremely shocked to hear today the suggestion that steps being taken to remove dangerous combustible cladding from buildings, far from making tower blocks safer, could be putting residents’ lives at further risk.’