Deadlines don’t cut both ways

I have been trying to figure out precisely why deadlines are a sword that cuts only in one direction – Downwards.

What do I mean? Well imagine that a demolition contractor has been given 24, 36 or 48 hours to demolish a bridge over a road, motorway or railway track.

Despite the potential hazards involved in demolition, clients and safety specialists are quite comfortable to allow a process that – ideally – might take a week to be condensed into a night or two just so they can get their precious road or railway line open again. A failure to hit the pre-agreed deadline can result in hefty financial penalties that run into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Now compare and contrast that with the way in which deadlines are applied among those that purport to oversee this industry of ours.

In 17 days’ time, the UK demolition industry will fall silent yet again as we remember the four mean that lost their lives in the collapse of the boiler house at the Didcot A Power Station. In 17 days’ time, the resulting investigation will have been ongoing yet unresolved for seven years. That is 2,555 days, give or take a Leap Year or two.

In that time, we have had two monarchs; three US presidents; and FIVE British Prime Ministers. Everton Football Club has had SEVEN managers.

And in all that time, Thames Valley Police and the HSE have offered not a single jot of explanation over why four demolition workers left the site not on foot but in body bags.

They have provided no closure for the families of those four men; nor have they even attempted to explain to the watching demolition world the precise cause of the incident.

And then this past week, as we had previously anticipated, the deadline for the conclusion of the Competition and Markets Authority investigation into bid rigging in the UK demolition industry shifted back. Again.

In fact, the CMA has promised further updates multiple times. There was a next update scheduled for December 2020. Another in February 2021 and October 2021. The industry held its breath again in March and July 2022 and both of those deadlines also passed without resolution. We were then told to expect an update in January 2023 but, with less than 24 hours to spare, the CMA announced yet another extension that will take us through to February 2023.

Seven times the CMA has shifted back the date on which it intends to share the findings of its investigation. Will they make it eight? Are they going for double figures? Will the investigation be wrapped up in 2023? I am not a betting man but, even if I were, I would not bet against this running into 2024.

For a while, the UK demolition industry was on the edge of its seat in anticipation of the CMA findings. Now it is slumped back in its armchair through boredom and resignation over all the broken promises.

So do these deadlines actually matter? Well yes, I believe they do.

In the case of the Didcot Disaster, the families of the four men deserve to have had some kind of explanation by now. Furthermore, the demolition industry could potentially benefit from finding out the exact cause of the collapse to hopefully avoid a repeat in the future.

In the case of the CMA investigation, clients surely deserve reassurance that they’re not about to appoint a demolition contractor with a bid-rigging black mark against its name. Would-be employees deserve to know more about the true nature of the company they’re about to join.

I realise that two examples do not a trend make. So here’s another example.

On 14 June 2017, a fire broke out at the 24-storey Grenfell Tower in London’s North Kensington. 72 people lost their lives in that blaze.

It will soon be six years since the post-fire investigation and the surrounding machinations began. They are still going on.
It took until last weekend for the UK Government to finally accept that it had played a role in the fire. But, having done so, the levelling up has now set a deadline of six weeks for the industry to sign up to a legally binding contract that would require construction companies to fix the cladding issue.

So, just to be clear. The authorities can drag their heels for seven and six years respectively over the deaths of those killed at Didcot and Grenfell.

But if you fail to reopen a motorway within the agreed time or if you are tardy about signing a pledge to fix some cladding, you will face immediate and hefty sanctions.

Anyone else think this is all a bit skewed?