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Subsidence task force

Geotechnical engineers play a key role in a new service that aims to reduce the time and cost involved in subsidence claims. It could provide a model for procurement.

A common complaint among geotechnical engineers is that they are not involved early enough in projects. They argue that the expertise they bring to the table is invaluable and can lead to substantial savings on any project - but only if they are included in the project team at the planning stage.

News that the Boston Central Artery project in the US is running £900M over budget and that the most blame lies with - wait for it - unforeseen ground conditions, clearly reinforces this argument.

Although early involvement of geotechnical expertise is becoming more common, it is still rare and usually the domain of 'the enlightened client'. One group that is aiming to change this is the UK Subsidence Group. This multi-disciplinary team was set up 12 months ago to develop 'an entirely new approach' to subsidence claims.

UKSG chief executive Geoff Davies, a director of Weeks Technical Services, says the group - the first dedicated subsidence specialist in the UK - is able to cope with surges in claims which have caused problems in the past. It guarantees 95% of claims will be completed within 18 months and 99% within 24 months.

UKSG comprises geotechnical firms Weeks and MLM Consulting Engineers along with structural and civil consultants and surveyors Brian Clancy Partnership, Curtins Consulting Engineers, Knapp Hicks and Partners and Brian Pyle Associates. Its chairman is Professor Brian Clancy, a former president of Institution of Structural Engineers, who chaired the ISE working committee that published 'Subsidence in Low Rise Buildings' in 1994.

The group says there are between 35,000 to 40,000 subsidence claims every year and since the early 1970s these have cost the insurance industry a total of more than £3bn. But despite the fact that more than a million people have been affected, 'the industry has been slow to acknowledge customer needs and meet their expectations', UKSG says.

It adds that the situation is complicated by firms using claims as an opportunity to generate more work for themselves, often without considering whether remedial work is 'sensible or justified', and by emphasising lowest price rather than best value.

This is compounded by the seasonal nature of the problem and the market's inability to respond to large numbers of claims during droughts, which has led to protracted, costly and inconvenient investigations.

Although subsidence claims form only a small part of insurance firms' portfolios, the group says they can have a 'disproportionate impact when claim surges arise, not only adversely affecting profitability and share price but also damaging insurers' reputations for customer care'.

UKSG says the one-stop-shop approach to claims cuts through the bureaucratic and time-consuming process.

Instead of dealing with a number of different companies, the group offers a single point of reference for insurers and their customers throughout the claim process, providing regular updates of progress.

Its full range of independent expertise and the latest technology means a faster, reliable and more efficient service, it says. The group has more than 200 engineers experienced in subsidence work, loss adjusters, geotechnical engineers, surveyors, planning supervisors and aboriculturalists as well as site investigation, materials testing and structural monitoring services.

Individual cases are dealt with by a claims handler who will co-ordinate the various technical aspects, which in turn are managed by the nearest local office within the UK network. A freephone helpline allows customers to keep up to date with the progress of their claim. This claims handling centre is open between 8am and 8pm on weekdays and between 8am and 1pm on Saturdays. A 24-hour emergency number is also available.

UKSG has also developed a short-term forecasting mechanism based on empirical rainfall methods, which it claims gives enough notice for the group to assemble and co-ordinate itself to meet likely demand levels.

Davies says that by offering complete ownership of subsidence claims from notification through to completion of remedial works, and by working closely with insurance companies, UKSG provides guaranteed performance standards for every key stage of the process.

'Subsidence claims will be solved properly and quickly within agreed timescales. The insured will no longer have to worry when, or if, their claim will be resolved, ' he says.

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