Two years after Genfell, what’s still to be done?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Following the devastation of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government carried out an independent review of the Building Regulations and Fire Safety. This week, they published a ‘clarified version’ of Approved Document B.

The new version is simplified, uses less jargon and is written in plain English. It now means that building owners can easily follow and understand the requirements expected of them, limiting any misunderstanding of their responsibility for the safety of residents. The document also brings together guidance for flats and houses.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction and should help building owners going forward, it’s been over two years since the Grenfell tragedy and people continue to campaign for safety in tower blocks, proving there is still so much to be done.

Last month, for the second anniversary of the Grenfell disaster, campaigners shone a spotlight on unsafe tower blocks across the country and a tower block in Newcastle was right at the centre. Messages were projected onto the blocks to highlight a genuine safety concern of residents within that building, it read: ‘2 years after Grenfell and the fire doors in this building still don’t work’. I’ve never really discussed the repercussions, or lack of, from Grenfell but I think it’s important we all speak out and keep talking. It’s the only way we’re ever going to see change. Campaigners, Grenfell United are calling for all dangerous cladding to be removed and safe fire doors, sprinklers and clear fire escapes to be installed in all blocks – is that really too much to ask for?

Residents of 12 tower blocks in Manchester are planning to sue the government for failing to protect them from fire amid rising frustration that thousands of people are still living in dangerous homes. Ministers have promised £600m to fund the removal of the type of combustible cladding that spread the fire at Grenfell, but checks since the tragedy have identified many high-rise blocks with other faults including wooden cladding and missing fire breaks, for which no public funding is yet being offered.

The government announced a ban on combustible materials for new buildings in June last year but the ban is limited only to buildings over 18m tall, meaning there is nothing in place to stop the same cladding used in Grenfell from being used in a five-story care home or building, which is terrifying.

I know that so much work has already been done and over the years Newcastle City Council alone has spent over £9m on fire doors and other fire safety measures, but if we still have buildings without fire doors then I personally don’t think enough has been done. We’ve got to keep talking about Grenfell, it’s the only way we’re ever going to see the change that is needed.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.

What’s wrong with retention in construction?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

This week, the new construction minister, Andrew Stephenson, supported a crackdown on poor payment, saying that the government needs to look at restricting the use of retention.

Retentions are when an agreed percentage of payment is withheld from the contractor. The money builds throughout the project and half of the retention is usually paid on completion, with the remaining balance being paid 12 months later when any defects have been corrected. Retentions give the employer security and encourages the contractor to rectify any problems. However, for years there have been concerns over the misuse of retentions, which has had a huge impact mostly on smaller firms.

A delay in payment means the smaller firms down the project chain suffer, as they have to wait even longer to be paid. Retentions restrict cashflow and lead to a waste in valuable resource and time, often spent chasing for payments – all of which can result in a business becoming insolvent. It’s not fair that the smaller firms are penalised for being a small but that’s what tends to happen – the smaller the firm, the harder it is hit.

Earlier in the year things were finally looking up for the smaller businesses. The government announced that from September, firms that don’t pay at least 95% of undisputed invoices within 60 days face being barred from public sector contracts worth more than £5m, this will ensure the government only does business with companies who pay their suppliers on time, many of which are small businesses – finally a step in the right direction, but is it enough?

Last week at our Construction Leadership event, Andy Mitchell, co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council also stressed that the industry needs to stand up and tell the government how they can support the industry and that includes clamping down on retention clauses and fair payment. The change in payment practices goes beyond reducing the payment time, we need to be naming and shaming those who aren’t paying on time and holding them to account for what they’re doing to the industry and supply chain. There is currently no requirement for the retention fund to be protected, so if the holder of the fund becomes insolvent then the money becomes part of a general pot of money available to creditors. The lack of protection has affected around 44% of contractors who have suffered non-payment over the last three years. When big contractors fail, such as Carillion, there’s a huge knock on effect for most of the industry, with many being businesses at risk of being left out of pocket. We must reduce the likelihood of this happening, so something needs to change.

Finance is a huge problem for our industry and one I don’t think we’ve taken seriously enough in the past. It wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry, so why should ours be any different?

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email catriona@cene.org.uk.