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Money valued over life, says engineer

15 September 2017


Burnt-out shell: the Grenfell Tower

Burnt-out shell: the Grenfell Tower

AN ENGINEER in Sheffield who is offering himself for ordination has said that building regulations in the UK are unlikely to blame for the failings that led to the Grenfell Tower fire in June (News, 15 June).

Fires in upgraded buildings are more likely to be the result of poorly paid workmanship in a society that places money above human value, he says.

Mark Riley, who attends St Peter’s, Warmsworth, in Doncaster, has been setting up companies for the past 30 years to solve issues or “fill gaps” for clients — including Toni & Guy and HSBC — across several industries. The latest in his portfolio is PR Services (Fire Protection) Ltd.

He set up the company in May 2015 to help a billion-pound social-housing client in the UK revamp its fire-safety installations on several of its 1950s and ’60s tower blocks, after a serious fire broke out in one of the buildings. The client cannot be named.

Mr Riley, who had previous experience in consulting on building regulations, explained: “I will pull together a team to deliver a solution for clients — that might be solicitors, accountants, experts in one field or another. If they are happy with the solution, I go ahead and set up a limited company to deliver it.”

In two years, on budget, and ahead of schedule, PR Services (Fire Protection) Ltd has upgraded 14 ageing tower blocks to meet 21st-century fire-safety standards. “It had to be a retrofit. The project we were working on was worth £98 million: there is no way you can take that to piece and start again.

“The question is, how do you retrofit something to get it as near as possible to something that should have been installed at the time.

“The reality in the commercial sector is that money becomes a limiting factor. This same problem of retrofitting exists for all the buildings that have this cladding; to say it is not cost-effective to do so puts the cost of lives lower.”

The problem is not whether the new cladding meets building regulations, but whether the cladding is properly installed, he says. “If you change the building regulations, you will have the same problems, because while you have experts designing solutions and regulations, the installation is done by somebody on £6.50 an hour — the employee does not care, and nor should they on that pay. It is therefore poor workmanship that results in these disasters, not the building regulations.”

This is where ministry comes into the commercial sector, he says. “We are basing value on prices’ being too high; we talk of money as being the most important element, but money has limited means to a limited end. But fire safety, like a bullet proof vest, needs to work 100 per cent effectively the first time it is needed; you can’t go back and fix it like a leaking tap.

“Because of my Christian values, I took the stance that I would concentrate on fire-proofing no more than two flats a day to leave enough time to ensure that the fire safety is going to work. I almost lost the contract because of that.”

Mr Riley argues that the UK has enough money to address these issues, but that the problem is where and how this money is being spent. “It is the choices we make. My faith meant that I could stand the sweating to making a stance; to say that, if you want me to do this job, then this is what it will cost, because this is how much time it will take to make sure it will work 100 per cent, first time.

“I could afford to take that risk, not because I was financially secure, but because my faith was secure. I choose not to separate my faith and the workplace; I just ask myself what love requires of me in any situation.”

Mr Riley worshipped at Sheffield Cathedral for six years before moving to St Peter’s. He was encouraged to apply for ordination by the former Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Revd Stephen Croft, he says, but has yet to be recommended by the diocese for the Bishop’s Advisory Panel. “I am some kind of weird shape that the Church doesn’t know what to make of. But I will keep trying.”

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