Most of us will remember waking up on Wednesday 14th June to the news of a major fire in progress at Grenfell Tower, North Kensington. Switching on our TV channels, we watched helplessly as firefighters worked tirelessly to try to extinguish the fire and save any lives they could in the process. As a housing and bidding professional who spent half of his childhood living in a social housing tower block, I realised immediately that this needed to be a huge wake-up call to the housing world and its suppliers.
What do I think may change in the months and years ahead for both bidding and contract management within the social housing world?
1.Technical Evaluation – Greater attention should be given to the technical elements at all stages e.g. in the specification of works and materials; the tender evaluation; and both the onsite supervision and post-inspections of contractor work. This will be a challenge for the many organisations who have cut back on professional technical staff.
2.Health & Safety – When this goes wrong, the consequences are deadly, so the priority given to this needs to be higher. Health & Safety is often evaluated at the pre-qualification stage; expect it to loom larger within the tender stage and be weighted accordingly.
3.Price vs Technical/Quality Evaluation – Of course clients need to get value for money with their limited resources. However, even since Grenfell, I have seen an opportunity for electric rewiring of social housing come to market with an 80% Pricing: 20% Quality/Technical Evaluation. This is unlikely to drive the attention to quality and safety that is needed.
4.Balance of Risk – Often clients seek to transfer most of the risk onto the contractor. However, Grenfell showed that when things go wrong, tenants go back to the ultimate property owner, in this case the Council. It will be most illuminating to see where the public inquiry places the various liabilities for this disaster.
5.Bespoke Tender Questions – Many of the tender questions we see are generic and could apply anywhere. So, lack of time at the buyer end to create project specific tender questions can lead to suppliers replicating generic responses. Time spent at specification and bid response stages drilling into the detail will produce a much more satisfactory end result for all concerned. Of course, this takes time and resources which can be in short supply.
6.Resident Involvement – In some housing organisations, residents have involvement in interviewing contractors and evaluating bids. This is likely to increase as the people who have to live with the consequences of the decisions make their voices heard. This can continue with resident-led inspections of work – a feature of some of the more enlightened housing organisations.
7.Regulatory Oversight – The reach of the regulator has diminished in recent years. This may change in the coming years with housing organisations being asked to contribute directly towards the costs of increased regulation.
8.Informed and Proactive Leadership – The Lakenhal House fire in 2009 in London was an horrific harbinger of what can happen when health & safety is not prioritised in high rise dwellings. Since then, many industry experts, most notably Inside Housing, have consistently warned that fire safety in many tower blocks was inadequate and that another disaster was only a matter of time. The fact that the Met Police has announced that it is considering corporate manslaughter charges in the wake of Grenfell will likely concentrate the minds of all housing decision-makers.
In summary, Grenfell has important lessons for all those involved in social housing contracts – housing organisations and their procurement teams; council committees and housing association boards; main contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers; housing regulators and. crucially, the residents themselves need to make sure that their voices are listened to at all stages of the process.