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Why aren’t construction sites closing?

Posted: 24th March 2020

Graham Watts OBE

Chief Executive

This is a very complex issue, which accounts for the mixed messages coming from government in recent days (eg Nicola Sturgeon calling for sites to close and Michael Gove and Robert Jenrick arguing that they should remain open).

In the absence of firm advice, some construction companies are taking matters into their own hands and closing for the foreseeable future (Taylor Wimpey, Galliard, Travis Perkins) or until there is more clarity (Saint Gobain). It is currently a matter of mess and muddle.

It would be incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to close; but it is also incredibly dangerous for all construction sites to remain open. It is not an issue with a binary solution.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of critical activity that ought to continue for issues of public safety:

  1. Make good unsafe buildings/dangerous structures –District Surveyors need powers to instruct emergency work to be done to make them safe if any occur – and a hastily abandoned site might just lead to a dangerous structure occurring.
  2. Structural inspections for subsidence / movement to determine risk
  3. Structural and roofing problems, loose tiles/chimney stacks, weathering
  4. All general building control work (both LABC and AIs) for nationally important buildings / facilities, e.g. NHS estate, GPs, etc.
  5. Drainage works / maintenance etc – important to avoid any increased public health problems in this respect
  6. Fire safety inspections
  7. Requirement for maintenance of fire protection systems and equipment to meet Fire Safety legislation – even if buildings are not occupied.
  8. Ongoing need for Fire risk assessments, both to meet legislation and new circumstances in buildings.
  9. Remedial work required to remove unsafe ACM cladding etc.
  10. Glazing replacement
  11. Locksmithing / lock replacement
  12. Gas safety work/ Suspected gas leaks
  13. Electrical safety work/ Electrical failures
  14. Flood remediation (especially to homes hit by recent floods)
  15. Plumbing and heating failures including loss of heating/condensation problems/hot water services
  16. Emergency Leaking/ flooding
  17. Health risks associated with blocked drainage/sewerage systems
  18. Water companies – remedial / emergency work to buildings and assets that are crucial to the supply of clean water,
  19. New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply chain of vital NHS equipment (for example where manufacturers are building units to make ventilators),
  20. Factories that are making anything required to combat the virus (e.g. a new hand sanitiser factory is under construction);
  21. Food supply chain – essential new builds or maintenance on existing buildings
  22. Extra warehouse space for food distribution by online platforms (to cope with massively increased demand)
  23. New or business/safety critical maintenance work on establishments which are involved in supply of medicines,
  24. Essential maintenance on morgues, funeral parlours, and crematoriums
  25. Essential maintenance and remediation across the health sector
  26. Installation/maintenance technicians providing services to key sectors – health, power etc?
  27. Emergency callouts, safety checks and essential work in care homes?
  28. Ongoing supervision and security measures.
  29. Sites where anti-terrorism considerations need to take precedence over other concerns – eg Palace of Westminster.
  30. Urgent works on emergency service properties other than health - police, fire, for example?
  31. Unsafe infrastructure – if a lorry strikes a bridge during the shutdown, for example, then work may be needed to make safe the affected structure.
  32. Bridge inspection and maintenance
  33. Dam inspection and maintenance
  34. Maintaining key national infrastructure: power stations and grid, motorways, railways, utilities etc.
  35. Repair and maintenance of telecommunications, energy waste and water – these are vital to work from home
  36. R&D facilities, where related to vaccine development or virus treatment
  37. Work on factories that make materials that are vital to all elements on this list

There will be other safety-critical work that needs to be added to this list.

However, it is also clear that much construction work is NOT essential – such as office accommodation, leisure facilities, for example.

The most important message to government is to define what work is essential and what work is not essential (as they have done for retail outlets).

One of the imperatives for people to go to work is that so many construction workers are self-employed (construction has more self-employed and freelance workers than any other industry) and in the absence of any package of support comparable to the job retention scheme announced on Friday, workers will continue to risk their health by going to work on non-essential projects. It is essential for government to address this issue urgently.

If construction sites remain open (and my argument is that they should only remain open if the work is critical) then construction work should only continue if:

  • it can be carried out under the guidance issued by Public Health England;
  • it can be undertaken without compromising safety and health;
  • it is carried out in accordance with the Site Operating Procedure published earlier today; and
  • workers can travel safely and responsibly to sites.

There has to be a safety-first message in all of this.

Construction sites cannot just be left. They need to be prepared for closure and left in a way that is safe and secure. Work is being done today on guidance about how to shut down sites safely.

So, the bottom line is that construction sites should only remain open if they are critical and they meet these conditions. If it is impossible to meet the 2m rule for example then they should not remain open unless it causes an unsafe or dangerous situation for them to close or the project is deemed to be critical to immediate societal need and then this needs to be carefully managed and risk-assessed.

We are looking for clarity from government and a strong central message. CIC is working with government through the Construction Leadership Council to try to achieve this clarity.

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.