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TIME TO END THE CULTURE OF ‘CHEAPEST IS BEST’ AS THE BUILDING COUNT RISES IN THE WAKE OF GRENELL DISASTER
In recent weeks, we have all felt shock and distress following the scenes that has led to one of the worst fire disasters the UK has seen. But now, feelings turn to a mix of anger and frustrations as to why the tragedy at Grenfell Tower was allowed to happen? Yet for many in the fire sector, such a tragedy was not unexpected – it was a disaster waiting to happen.

Several warnings and near-misses have been ignored in recent years, with the prevailing culture in council procurement and for more unscrupulous members of the construction industry, being one of ‘cheapest is best’. Poor workmanship and inappropriate specification, driven by wafer thin operating margins have been given a ‘blind eye’ during construction, safety adherence and refurbishment processes of numerous projects.

But these are not ‘out of the ordinary’ instances. The Association for Specialist Fire Protection (ASFP) has untold examples of poorly constructed flats, hospitals and schools. Yet more UK tower blocks are found to be wrapped in inappropriate combustible cladding and the investigation into how the building’s construction contributed to the rapid-fire spread continues, the construction industry must also ask where things went wrong.

The cladding was installed on the council-owned Grenfell block in 2015 as part of a £10 million refurbishment by a company which was later liquidated after a firm they were working with refused to pay out in a dispute over their work. It’s now transpired that the zinc cladding specified on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower was switched to cheaper aluminium panels during the procurement process.

Documents seen by the BBC and The Times appear to show that the fireproof cladding called for in Studio E Architects’ original 2012 planning application was effectively downgraded to save just around £300,000.

However, failures can be traced back as a far as 1999. Report after recommendation has been left to sit in a ‘pending file’ and it’s not the first time in recent years that there has been a fire in a high-rise block of flats resulting in loss of life.

In 2013, coroners wrote to the Government on two separate fires – in Lakanal House in Camberwell in 2009 in which six people died, and in Shirley Towers in Southampton in 2010 in which two firefighters died. All we were sat on by the Housing Minister – one Gavin Barwell, who lost his seat in the election and is now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff. Smells a bit like ‘reward for failure.’

The Government faces an estimated bill of more than £600m for replacing flammable cladding on an unknown number of housing blocks or public buildings. As checks continue across the country, one wonders if that reported £600m cost is the tip of an iceberg. So far, 181 tower blocks in 51 councils are deemed unsafe.

It is estimated that there are tens of thousands of other public or private buildings in the UK fitted with cladding. Leading to calls for an immediate review of safety. Why though, does it take huge loss of life and public outrage before ministers or council leaders are forced to act? Now there’s a mad scramble to remove and test the materials whilst the residents living in such blocks are supposed to get a good night’s sleep.

The answer is simple. There has been a culture of cutting corners for too long.

As councils repeatedly faced budget cuts, driven largely out of circumstance after the last Labour government left the treasury’s piggy bank empty, we may at last see some of the austerity driven policies stripped back or repealed. With a PM under pressure and lacking political or public credibility action is needed.

Industry experts have warned the cost of replacing the cladding on each block would top £1m and costs would spiral far higher if residents have to be re-homed during building work.

Whilst telehandlers, truck mounted platforms or aerial work platforms can quickly do the job of removing the cladding, how it will be redesigned and suitable cladding is refitted provides a bigger headache for the scaffolding and construction industry who are starting to feel the pressure a looming issues in the wake of Brexit become a reality.

The concerns are not just about the future quantity, but also the quality of the skilled workforce. The construction industry is also undergoing a rapid digital transformation – through disruptive technologies such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), wireless sensing, big data and analytics, 3D printing, and autonomous equipment – that requires radically different skill sets.

As the saying goes, ‘you pay cheap, you pay twice’ and it’s time Government and Councils understood that if you keep cutting budgets, contractors are likely to cut corners. For the sake of a couple of hundred thousand pounds 80 lives have been lost. For a country like ours, that is a travesty of due diligence as well as a disaster.

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