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Grenfell: Certification chief hits out at ‘fundamental’ procurement problem

Grenfell one year on

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.’


Readers' comments (2)

  • This all seems rather too simplistic - what happened to specification? (not mentioned even once in the above piece)
    And if and when contractors started playing the cheaper substitute game, what happened to 'equal and approved'?
    Perhaps clients too keen to play the cost engineering game without enough regard to (or maybe understanding of) the consequences have a lot to answer for, if they go against the advice of their architect and their quantity surveyor - but how robust is that advice?
    And, given the cosy relationship of the Government with Carillion despite this outfit's grubby behaviour, perhaps there are deep rooted problems in this country in a badly distorted view of value for money (and austerity) leading not just to 'cheap and nasty' but to outcomes that can prove both terribly dangerous and ultimately far more expensive - and not just in the context of Grenfell Tower.

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  • Conformity to the specification cannot be ignored seemingly to reduce cost. Who is intentionally accepting nonfonforming product?

    The nonconformities arising from subbie bashing, as you put it, are relatively simple to prove and yet we see no evidence to support the accusations made here.

    Lastly, all building professionals have a duty to make quality (conformity to requirements) cheaper than nonquality.

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