CIPS' Duncan Brock, chair of the Industry Response Group, was shocked at the procurement culture ©Leon Neal/Getty Images
CIPS' Duncan Brock, chair of the Industry Response Group, was shocked at the procurement culture ©Leon Neal/Getty Images

Lessons from Grenfell: procurement's role

The Hackitt review identified the role of procurement in a list of failings that culminated in the deaths of 72 people in the Grenfell fire. CIPS is part of the working group to improve competencies

The heart-rending details of the mistakes on the night of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017 that contributed to the tragedy cannot fail to move us, but the thought that purchasing decisions played a part resonates specifically with the procurement profession.

The exact role poor procurement played in the fire will form part of the second phase of the official enquiry, but it is already known the cladding applied to the building during a refit did not meet fire safety standards.

The phase one inquiry report, released in October, notes: “The most significant development, both in terms of the history of the building and relevance to the fire on 14 June 2017, was the refurbishment carried out between 2012 and 2016. 

“Most significantly, it incorporated the over-cladding of every storey of the existing building with a new insulation and rainscreen cladding system.”

Arguments over responsibility for the decisions around this refurbishment emerged during the General Election campaign, with Liberal Democrat candidate for Kensington Sam Gyimah telling London newspaper City AM the cladding meant it was “essentially a candle that people were living in”.

And while there have been earlier fires in tall buildings, the deaths of 72 people in Grenfell have shone a light on procurement practices in the construction sector like never before. Dame Judith Hackitt’s 2018 review of the disaster identified procurement as “setting the tone” for relationships between clients, designers and contractors, and she said “inadequate specifications, focus on low cost or adversarial contracting, can make it difficult (and most likely, more expensive) to produce a safe building”.

Last year research by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government found there were 266 tall buildings in England, including social housing, public buildings and student accommodation with cladding that presented a fire hazard. In the wake of Hackitt’s review an Industry Response Group was set up to focus on improving competencies across various aspects of tall buildings, and last summer CIPS was invited to chair the procurement working group.

Duncan Brock, group director at CIPS, took on the role of chair. In October, he told the CIPS Annual Conference it was not clear who’s accountable for the overall safety of a tower block, but the competence of people involved in higher-risk residential buildings (HRRBs) is not up to standard, he said. “How did the wrong cladding end up on the outside of this building?”

Brock said he was shocked at the culture of low-cost, low-margin, late-payment procurement, with no trust in suppliers and contractors. “Terrible practices I shudder at,” he said. “When you cut corners in construction you’re compromising safety.” 

The working group involved 24 organisations, including professional bodies, firms in construction and facilities management, initially meeting on a monthly basis, Brock told SM. “We had all these different lenses looking at this procurement challenge.” Meetings covered building design, construction, managing contractors, use and refurbishment.

CIPS then began work behind the scenes to develop the 30-page competence framework, with input from the group. “It represents about six months of hard work,” said Brock. The framework now forms part of the Raising the Bar report, along with frameworks from 11 other working groups.

One bone of contention that emerged was the question of whether people making purchasing decisions on HRRBs should be qualified in procurement. But the number and diversity of roles that are involved in procurement on a building made this impractical. It was instead agreed that there should be someone with a comprehensive level of procurement competency involved in all decision-making and at every stage of the building process.  

And, because drawing up a competence framework is all very well but if no one takes any notice the risk is that business will continue as usual, it was agreed that a combination of carrot and stick will be used to drive change across the industry.

New regulations are expected from government that will require people carrying out procurement for HRRBs to be accredited, and CIPS will be the body providing such accreditation. But this is not about furthering CIPS, stressed Brock: “What we’re trying to do is further the competence of people doing procurement to make the right decisions,” he said. 

Rather than waiting for phase two of the inquiry, Brock wants to see people starting to become accredited over the next 12 months. Alongside this, he envisages trailblazers showing the way forward, such as an accredited quantity surveyor demonstrating what good procurement looks like.

CIPS intends to work with construction bodies including the Construction Industry Council, the Construction Industry Training Board and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors to spread awareness.

Grenfell and previous disasters “keep pointing to the fact that people haven’t learned the lessons of the past and in some cases government hasn’t done what it should have done”, said Brock. “And in some cases the industry hasn’t changed the way it works either. 

“But the thing coming through now is the industry wants to change and one of the areas they recognise they need to change is procurement. Procurement leads to a business model and the business model here is not a sustainable, robust model that allows you to make the right decisions. 

“We’ve got to get to a more balanced approach to decision making, not just one that’s driven by cash and profit. If you do it right, you protect people, and you can include sustainability and social value. You can make a difference through good procurement,” Brock explained. 

Timeline

1960s – Aluminium composite material (ACM) is developed for use in Germany and quickly becomes a popular building product. Alucobond owns the first patent.

1962 – A British Standard Code of Practice introduces high-rise residential buildings standards with the stay-put policy, in the belief that buildings should give one hour fire protection.

1973 – Fire spreads rapidly through combustible materials in the walls and roof of Summerland leisure complex, Isle of Man, killing 50. The local fire commission’s recommendation that a named person take responsibility for fire safety in building design is not taken up.

1974 – The 24-storey Grenfell Tower in west London is completed. 

1985 – The Building Act of 1984 comes into force, with massive deregulation of the industry, part-privatising building control.

1986 – The Department of the Environment issues a warning on the use of combustible cladding systems. Regulations are not toughened.

1990s – Alucobond patent expires and other firms enter the market.

2000 – After cladding-linked fires at Knowsley Heights, Liverpool (1991) and Garnock Court, Irving (1999) a select committee recommends tougher guidance to ensure products are ‘entirely non-combustible’.

July 2009 – Six people are killed when a fire quickly spreads through Lakanal House, London, which had been previously identified as at risk of fire spread.

July 2009 – Royal Borough of Kensington Council commissions the Notting Barns South draft masterplan, which includes plans to demolish Grenfell.  

December 2010 – Industry and fire sector bodies issue warnings about fire safety – including calls for sprinklers in high-rise buildings.

February 2012 – Demolition plans are dropped. When residents of Grenfell Tower are consulted on refurbishment plans, including type of cladding preferred, they select a fire-resistant zinc composite material.

May 2012 – Fire spreads up a column of ACM cladding in a high-rise building in Roubaix, France, killing one. ACM cladding is also linked to the Wooshin Golden Suites fire in Busan (2010), the Lacrosse Tower fire in Melbourne (2014), and the Marina Torch and Address Downtown fires in Dubai (both in 2015).

April 2014 – Building firm Rydon is appointed for the £9.7m refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, involving the addition of cladding, new windows and a communal heating system. Aluminium cladding replaces previously considered zinc cladding composite material – saving £293,000 according to a leaked post tender amendment request. 

2014-2016 – Grenfell Tower renovation works are inspected 16 times by council building control officers, but checks fail to prevent the use of the flammable cladding blamed for spreading the fire.

August 2016 – Fire destroys five storeys of Shepherd’s Court tower, London. Rapid spread of fire is linked to external cladding.

November 2016 – The London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority writes to the Grenfell Tower management company KCTMO with a ‘notification of deficiencies’. The issues raised include breaches in internal compartmentation.

April 2017 – London Fire Brigade writes to local authorities advising them to check cladding materials for fire safety in light of Shepherd’s Court fire.

June 2017 – Fire spreads through cladding installed on Grenfell Tower, killing 72 people.

July 2017 – The Guardian reports that in 2014 building safety experts had warned that the insulation planned for Grenfell Tower – which was installed and fuelled the fire – should be used only with non-combustible cladding. 

December 2017 – Lawyers representing survivors and relatives of the Grenfell victims begin giving evidence to the public inquiry.

October 2019 – The findings from phase one of the public inquiry, which examined what happened on the night, are released.

January 2020 – Phase two of the public inquiry begins, examining complex and inter-related issues concerning the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower, including the design and installation of cladding.

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