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Better? Greener? Faster? It must be safer

Posted: 14th January 2021

Graham Watts OBE

Chief Executive

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.

Graham Watts OBE

Chief Executive

Graham has been involved with CIC since 1989. Initially, as a member of the Council, it’s Executive Board and then as a Director. He was appointed Chief Executive and Secretary in October 1991. Prior to joining CIC, Graham was Chief Executive of the British Institute of Architectural Technologists (a member of CIC) from 1983.

Graham is responsible for the general policy and direction of the Council, for maintaining effective communication with Government, other external agencies and with members and for establishing and maintaining the CIC Secretariat and office.

Graham is an Honorary Fellow of RIBA, CIBSE, CABE, ICWCI, BIID, CICES and the Faculty of Building and an Honorary Member of the RICS and CIAT. He was awarded the President’s Medal of the CIOB in 2000 and the Peter Stone Award of the Association of Building Engineers in 1996.

Graham is currently a director of CIC Approved Inspectors Register (CICAIR Ltd); Construction Umbrella Bodies (Holdings) Ltd; the Considerate Constructors’ Scheme; and Constructionarium Ltd. He was a Visiting Professor at the University of Northumbria for twelve years from 2000. He has been Secretary of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment since 2010.

Graham is a member of the Industry Response Group, set up by the MHCLG in the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy and Chaired the Competence Working Group set up to assist Dame Judith Hackitt’s Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety. Following the report publication he is now Chair of the Steering Group charged with implementing the recommendations on improving competence for all those engaged in designing, construction, managing and maintaining higher-risk residential buildings, this includes oversight of the competence work being carried out in the Fire and Rescue Services.

Graham had a long involvement in the sport of fencing and his competitive career culminated with a Commonwealth Medal in 1990. In 1992, he captained the British Sabre team at the Barcelona Olympic Games. He was the Manager of the British Fencing Team from 1996 and the Performance Director of the British Olympic Fencing Team for 10 years from 2000 to 2010, and Team Leader at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics Games.

Outside of CIC, he is an established international dance writer and critic. He is a member of The Critics’ Circle, the UNESCO Dance Council, Dance UK and the Society of Dance Research. He has been Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle since 2009 and of the National Dance Awards since 2010. In 2012, he was author of Daria Klimentová’s Autobiography “Agony and Ecstasy: My Life in Dance”.

Graham received an OBE in the New Years Honours in 2008 for his services to the construction industry.