Grenfell Tower Report – Did Procurement Contribute To Disaster?

The final report from the UK government’s “Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety” was published last month, a year after the terrible tragedy at Grenfell Tower in west London, when 72 people lost their lives in a fire that spread far more quickly through the tower block than it should have.

Dame Judith Hackitt, who led the review, avoided what was perhaps expected to be the obvious recommendation – to ban certain sorts of building cladding, which was held largely responsible for the rapid spread and ferocity of the Grenfell blaze. Instead, she makes far-ranging recommendations around a “new regulatory framework” for construction and buildings which she hopes “will drive real culture change and the right behaviours”.

Her description of what is wrong currently is worth reading – she gives four key issues underpinning system failure. It’s worth repeating those in full.

Ignorance – regulations and guidance are not always read by those who need to, and when they do the guidance is misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Indifference – the primary motivation is to do things as quickly and cheaply as possible rather than to deliver quality homes which are safe for people to live in. When concerns are raised, by others involved in building work or by residents, they are often ignored. Some of those undertaking building work fail to prioritise safety, using the ambiguity of regulations and guidance to game the system.

Lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities – there is ambiguity over where responsibility lies, exacerbated by a level of fragmentation within the industry, and precluding robust ownership of accountability.

Inadequate regulatory oversight and enforcement tools – the size or complexity of a project does not seem to inform the way in which it is overseen by the regulator. Where enforcement is necessary, it is often not pursued. Where it is pursued, the penalties are so small as to be an ineffective deterrent.

The end result is that these issues “have helped to create a cultural issue across the sector, which can be described as a ‘race to the bottom’ caused either through ignorance, indifference, or because the system does not facilitate good practice. There is insufficient focus on delivering the best quality building possible, in order to ensure that residents are safe, and feel safe”.

Procurement does have a key role to play in all this of course, and the “race to the bottom” point might make many of us feel uncomfortable, as we think of competitive bidding, tough price negotiation, reverse auctions and all those tools which procurement uses to drive down price and – we like to think – increase value.

But there is a real dilemma concealed within that point about cost versus value. How do we measure the “value” of paying more for a higher specification material? What is the “value” of reducing the probability of a tragedy from 0.02% to 0.01%?  Anyone who has worked on tenders for complex projects or services, in public or private sectors, knows how hard it is to weigh up all the factors that feed into “value” equation.

So perhaps not surprisingly, Dame Judith’s comments and recommendations in the short “procurement” chapter of the report are sensible without being particularly creative or novel. She is clear that “the way in which procurement is often managed can reduce the likelihood that a building will be safe”, which we will all agree with, I’m sure.

She criticises the “lack of clear roles and responsibilities, and ambiguous regulations and guidance allow the market to procure without building safety in mind; there is no requirement or incentive to do so”. She also identifies payment and contractual issues that do not support good behaviour throughout the supply chain as another potential driver of safety issues.

As in the case of many similar government reports, including much of the work of the National Audit Office, for instance, the diagnosis of the problem is convincing and thorough. The weakness in reports  can often be in the recommendations; in complex situations, it is often much easier to see the problem than to offer practical ways of solving it. In part 2 we’ll look at whether Dame Judith’s report has avoided that issue.

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  1. Mr Grumpy:

    The procurement element contributed in some part, however their approach is driven by a wide ranging factors which are not just price but also political and peer pressure. There is a huge housing requirement nationwide and in some areas housing is going up quicker than they can fill them! In most cases Local Authorities rely a lot on external expertise because sadly there isn’t internal expertise to deliver all the demands. Having delivered housing scheme projects for Local Government, the challenges outside of the specifying the requirement the highest quality standard are the bloody councillors themselves who make quite frankly un-realistic promises to their constituencies! You try telling them that a housing project might not be delivered on time due to health and safety and see what response you get. They feel bound to deliver their promises and have little consideration how you achieve that so they transfer the risk of that decision to some other poor sod who then carries that can being placed in an unwinnable position.

    The very fact the report is not recommending a ban on certain materials will drive the very behaviours they want to avoid. Rather then remove the issue, they hope that by tiptoeing around it contains the risk. It’s like a game of Jenga or Buckeroo, only a matter of time and bad luck before we see a similar tragedy.

    Accountability needs to come from the top first and foremost.

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