Opinion – BROKEN!

After a week in which I have reported on precious little aside from the revelations from the Competition and Markets Authority investigation into bid-rigging and price-fixing within the UK demolition industry, I was planning to take a step backwards to give myself some fresh perspective; and to possibly find a reason – aside from the all-too-obvious greed – why some of the UK’s biggest AND BEST demolition companies had allowed themselves to become embroiled in such a shoddy business.

Without wishing to condone the actions of the #CMA8 (or, possibly, the #CMA10), I reflected upon how the construction industry itself might need to shoulder some responsibility for creating an atmosphere in which collusion was not just inevitable but necessary. After all, margins are now so thin that – like the finest filo pastry – it is possible to read the newspaper trough them. Moreover, the wider industry has engineered a bloated structure and regime in which it can cost thousands or even hundreds of thousands in man hours merely to get a foot on the tender ladder; often with no promise of actual paid work.

But before anyone sheds a tear for those “forced” down the dark path of bid rigging and collusion, it is worth digging a little deeper not just into the financial records of those companies named by the CMA but also into their safety record. And you don’t have to dig too deeply to realise that at least some of those companies have been found wanting in that department too.

In March 2017, Scudder was fined over the death of a demolition worker who plunged to his death down a lift shaft. Just last week, Brown and Mason was fined a paltry £5,000 for the death of a demolition worker at Longannet Power Station. Erith Group has admitted that it is currently facing two ongoing regulatory investigations: one of which – presumably – is the CMA probe; while the is an investigation into a fatal accident. And two men were killed on a John F Hunt project in Redcar back in September 2019.

Couple that with the scaffold collapse in Reading on a site operated by McGee Group and the 2015 collapse of a building near Aldwych in London where Keltbray was operating, and it makes for deeply unpleasant reading that gives lie to the notion that members of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors are somehow the industry elite. It surely also calls into question the veracity and value of the much-vaunted Accredited Site Audit Scheme operated by the NFDC. (And before the keyboard warriors feel tempted to point out that Scudder is not a member of the NFDC, they WERE at the time of the infractions).

None of this should come as a surprise. The many failings of the UK demolition industry have been there for all to see.

Way back in 2014, I talked about the fact that the term “healthy competition” was used as a catch-all for a variety of dirty tricks and smear campaigns. I went on to say:

“For far too long, the industry has based growth on excessive borrowing in the hope that well-paid work would arrive before the receivers. For far too long, the industry has taken educational under-achievers and attempted to mould them into intelligent, forward-thinking and safety savvy individuals. For far too long, the industry has accepted a rainbow-coloured array of qualification cards as a panacea to all health and safety concerns.
Any sector that has devised an entry-level qualification that is geared to ensure an optimum pass rate even among the semi and fully illiterate needs to take a long, hard look at itself.”

The title of that article (which was roundly derided at the time) was “UK demolition is broken”. (You can read it here).

If the industry was broken in 2014, it is in tatters today.