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Anti-PPP lobby will find ammunition in Cullen

COMMENT

Lord Cullen's report last week on the Ladbroke Grove rail tragedy was a seminal work which should be read by all in the rail industry.

However, as Health & Safety Executive chief inspector of construction Kevin Myers observed at a conference last week, Cullen makes points on management and leadership that every construction professional would do well to take on board.

According to Cullen: 'A high proportion of accidents, incidents and near misses followed unsafe action resulting from underlying deficiencies in the management of safety.'

Addressing delegates at Aston University on the factors behind the downward spiral in safety on UK construction sites, Myers highlighted the speed with which the rail industry had adopted so many bad practices from construction.

Although he did not go so far as to say it, the inference is surely that, since moving maintenance and renewal of the network from under the nationalised British Rail wing to private sector control, safety standards have dropped through the floor. They now equal the inauspicious construction industry levels.

If true, this conclusion drives a coach and horses through the rationale guiding the way we now look after our infrastructure.

According to government, taking control of the nation's infrastructure away from the constraints of the public purse is the only true way to guarantee consistent standards and consistent safety levels.

Now Lord Cullen appears to be saying otherwise - or at least that current policies and practices need improvement.

This is surely music to union bosses' ears. The TUC conference 'debate that never happened' over the role of the private finance initiative and the government's defence - that may well not happen either - at the Labour Party conference this week, hinges largely on these factors.

Basically, can we trust market forces and cash incentives to drive and guarantee public safety? Can we rely on the need to return shareholder value to underpin the necessary investment in safety measures? Or are the public alternatives too awful to bear thinking about?

But if Myers and the HSE really fear, as Cullen infers, that increased private sector involvement is threatening safety, it surely becomes hard for it to back proposals for the public private partnership of London's Tube. And for that matter, how can it continue to back the additional fragmentation of responsibilities on the national rail network?

A thorough reading of Cullen's findings shows that the issues are perhaps not so simplistic.

However, we have spent so much time addressing safety in construction that it seems more than a little regressive to have so rapidly allowed the rail sector to be tarred with a similar brush.

As Myers explained at Aston last week, 'We must become the change that we want to see.'

The lesson from Lord Cullen is that management and organisation of the industry is the only place to start.

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