So many questions…

The report that echoed around the world.

It is less than a week since we published our preliminary report on the catastrophic scaffold collapse in Reading, and already the article has become our most-read and most-shared story of the past 12 months. Even though it was written to address a British incident and a British issue, we have been genuinely amazed to see the story spread across the demolition world. At last count, it had been read in an astonishing 61 countries.

Perhaps more remarkable is the many and varied views that it has generated. Although we have not yet received a single negative comment (remarkable in itself), it seems that everyone has taken something slightly different from the piece. Some focused upon the true purpose of scaffolding within a demolition environment; others chose to point out the fact that three incidents in a week had befallen members of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors.

My own personal takeaway, however, is the often unspoken use of sub-contractors to carry out work won by “premier league” contractors.

Now I have been around long enough to realise that the demolition and construction industry has more layers than a large onion. I realise that for every principal contractor there are dozens of specialist contractors and sub-contractors. Whether this is an efficient use of human resources, a “horses-for-courses” approach or merely an almighty administrative cluster-fuck waiting to happen, frankly, I will leave you to decide. But here’s my problem and, as always, I shall fall back upon a trusty football (soccer) analogy to make my point.

I make no secret of the fact that I support West Ham United (although after last weekend’s drubbing by a rampant Manchester City, I am seriously considering keeping my allegiance on the down-low in future). Now a ticket at the London Stadium will cost me somewhere in the region of £50. Spending that £50 and taking the trouble to get myself half-way across London brings with it certain expectations. When West Ham United take to the field, I expect to see Mark Noble wearing the captain’s arm band. I expect to see Lukasz Fabianski sporting the goalkeeper’s jersey. I expect to see Declan Rice looking composed beyond his years and giving a future-captain-of-England performance.

What I don’t expect is to see a team cobbled together from spare players from the nearby Dagenham & Redbridge, ably assisted by a couple of lads from the local pub that just happen to have both football boots and a replica West Ham kit.

Similarly, if I forked over £300 to see Barbara Streisand live in Hyde Park, I am going to be more than a little disappointed if a karaoke singer then takes to the stage wearing one of Babs’ frocks.

And it’s not just me that expects to get what I have paid for. It is not unusual for larger soccer clubs to be heavily fined for fielding a youth or second eleven team in order to protect their star players from injury ahead of a “more important” fixture.

I am sure you get the analogy here.

Now I realise that it is, perhaps, a little unkind to describe some of the specialist sub-contractors used by major demolition firms as a second eleven; as a karaoke singer in a designer dress. But if they are actually that good, why are they not competing for this work directly rather than feeding upon the scraps dropped from the big name contractors’ table? Why are they more adept at flying below the radar than the pilot of an F-117A Nighthawk?

Think about the implications of all this for a second. A big name demolition contractor has just jumped through pre-qualification hoops in order to be considered for the work. It is has then put together a detailed bid document that outlines its experience and expertise, the results of its most recent independent safety audits, and the tens of thousands of man hours it has clocked up without a reportable incident. Hell, the company has probably even made mention of the fact that it will be using its own fleet of brand-new and surgically-clean equipment and vehicles to deliver the project. And then when the contractor actually gets the green light, it palms off great chunks of the work to a company that has never undergone a safety audit, which will utilise its own equipment which may or may not be as clean and green as previously promised, and which flies so far below the radar that it doesn’t even have its own website.

A further thought has just occurred to me literally as I am writing this. Several times a year, the industry likes to pat itself on the back at one awards ceremony or another. Given what we all now know about the sub-letting of demolition contracts, are we certain that all of the awards handed out in years gone by were legitimate? Or have we applauded Company A when it was Company Z that actually did the work?

Now I know which side my bread is buttered and so I rarely (if ever) take the side of the client. But in this instance, I believe they would be right to question this practice. In fact, I think they would be crazy to do otherwise.

£300 to see Barbara Streisand roughly 30 years past her prime is bad enough. But £300 to see “Sandra from accounts” doing Woman in Love while wearing an outfit borrowed from Ms Streisand’s wardrobe is just taking the piss.