Memory is a fickle thing. It edits things so the narrative of our lives subtly changes. It makes in-person evidence particularly tricky in courts. It can put far too much emphasis on things momentous to us but totally unmemorable to others.
I have a memory of a lecture from a visiting American professor. Hillis Miller talked about psycho-geography – that disconcerting effect where, because we take the road most travelled, places we visit often come to seem closer together. The lecturer wore a velvet jacket and low-top sneakers. He had curly hair and was talking about Thomas Hardy. I remember it as if it was yesterday. None of my friends recall it at all. I know which dress I wore at a Mansion House dinner: I don’t remember the speaker. Maybe that’s not surprising. I still feel guilty for breaking a particularly hideous ornament that belonged to my mother.
But loads of things have left no impression at all - or where my memory is at odds with others. So, I find it incomprehensible that the UK government thinks we’ll be able to attribute guilt or innocence going back 30 years. But the new Building Safety Act is asking just this. And, while I know this currently doesn’t apply to Scotland, it’s too soon to be complacent as I get the feeling Westminster may have in its sights set on a UK-wide approach to building safety.
Now, before you think my objections are just because I work for the Association for Project Safety (APS) – a membership body for professionals aiming to make building projects safer for construction workers and end users – think again. My members don’t want to avoid responsibility or excuse actions that have led to injury or loss of life. APS was set up to improve safety and to bring that about through training and sharing good practice. We’d rather drum out of the Brownies people who cut corners, use shoddy materials and turn a blind eye to unsafe practices.
But there are real-life consequences to the 30-year rule.
For a start, it may be almost impossible to track down the truly culpable. And it certainly won’t have a tidy conclusion like some cosy rerun of New Tricks. For example, many major projects come into being through a collaboration where partners form a company to get things done. That winds up when the building is handed over to its owners. Then there’s where the builder has ceased to trade. Or is based in a different country. In these cases, there may simply be no one to chase.
And how do you hold to account the original consortium, when the structure has changed over the years? Just scale up your own domestic experience: if you are still in the house where you lived in 1992 can you, hand on heart, say you haven’t changed the kitchen, put in new windows or added a conservatory?
It all goes to make financial risk incalculable, leaving the construction sector without access to the affordable and effective indemnity insurance needed to take on big builds at all.
I approve of putting mistakes right. But laws have to be realistic to be effective. Instead of protecting residents and making construction safer, this new law runs the risk of lengthy litigation with no resolution at the end. And leaves the construction sector so risk averse it builds nothing at all.
Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, Association for Project Safety