Construction sites across the country are operating under a continual threat of vandalism, mugging, theft and even arson. Here, those affected tell their stories – and look for ways to fight back.
in the morning, eight or nine empty cans of lager were found lying on the ground. Whoever was responsible for them had sneaked on to the site overnight. Then they drank. As a result they thought it would be a good idea to smash up the 7.5-tonne mini-digger with bricks. The repairs cost £1500. It was the third time in four weeks that the site had been target by vandals and thieves.
Earlier that month, two men had driven on to the site in broad daylight and loaded their car with equipment worth £700. It took onlookers 20 minutes to realise that something untoward was happening and contact the police. In another incident, a group of yobs wrecked a concrete floor, which cost £900 to re-lay.
All three incidents happened in February on one small housing job in Skewen, Swansea. The development was being run by Housemates UK, and it was only its second job as contractor, having converted itself from a restoration specialist last year. On the first job, kids had kicked in the security fencing, costing the firm £2000.
The drunken attack on the digger prompted Simon Pinnock, the firm’s managing director, to take action. He offered a £500 reward for information that leads to the arrest of the people responsible. Pinnock recalls the morning he found the trashed digger: “I was pretty pissed off to be honest. I wanted to kick the shit out of them.”
Pinnock is not alone. Theft and vandalism are routine occurrences on Britain’s construction sites. Vehicle damage is particularly common – earlier this summer a report by the Federation of Small Businesses found that 30% of those contractors that had been attacked in the past year had suffered vehicle damage. Another report, by the Royal & Sun Alliance, published this month, showed that British business as a whole lost £1.3bn as a result of yob behaviour – £120m of that being in the transport and construction sectors.
There is little statistical proof that the number of attacks is increasing; the number of anti-social behaviour orders issued during the last three months of 2004 was double the same period the previous year, but that may be simply proof of their growing popularity. However, there is a widespread sense that the problem is growing more serious. As Tesh Patel, corporate business director at Royal & Sun Alliance, puts it: “The reason why we did this survey was that our insurance customers kept telling us the problem was getting worse.”
The average cost of theft and vandalism averages out at £2000 a contractor. This might not sound like a vast sum, but some suffer more than others – and in any case, £2000 is not negligible to a small firm.
There are some inner-city sites that just aren’t safe for our staff to visitHead of a large cost consultantThere are some inner-city sites that just aren’t safe for our staff to visit
Head of a large cost consultant
And there are the hidden costs. Housemates’ Pinnock says he did not claim on his insurance for the £5100 damage his sites suffered. He estimates this would hike his premium up from £8000 a year to as much as £14,000. Pinnock considered hiring security, but the site was too small to accommodate permanent guards. He adds that the cost of getting a security team to check on the site would be £40-50 a night. On an 18-month job like the one in Skewen, this comes to about £25,000. Besides, Pinnock argues, security would turn up at the same time every night and the vandals would learn their routine.
In any case, even on-site security is not a complete cure for vandalism – Hull-based contractor Hobson & Porter installed a second guard after a string of attacks on a housing development for people with learning difficulties that it was building for English Churches. The youths set light to a cabin and pushed a firework through the window of a mobile canteen. On three occasions the security guards locked themselves in their cabin and called for back-up because of the severity of the violence.
Despite the attacks on the relatively small contractors mentioned above, the body that represents them, the Federation of Master Builders, insists that it is large builders that have most to fear. A spokesperson says: “On larger sites there is a lot more for yobs to do.”
The country’s second largest housebuilder by profit and turnover is Wimpey. and it has one of the nastiest horror stories of recent times. Last month a housing development in Reading was burned down, 75 ft flames lighting up the night sky. The suspected arson attack has delayed the project six months, while the site is demolished and the foundations examined. Wimpey has now increased its security, with 24-hour guards and CCTV. And contractor Skanska has also been a victim at one of the country’s most high-profile projects, the Will Alsop-designed Palestra office development in Southwark, central London. A local resident is understood to have been so fed up with the dust caused by construction that he took a hammer to one of the site workers’ cars.
Nor is the problem restricted to sites. Many consultants have to take precautions to protect their staff when they visit troublesome areas.
The head of one large cost consultant says he demands that his staff travel by taxi to the site’s front gate.
“There are some inner-city sites that just aren’t safe for our staff to visit,” he says, “particularly when they are wearing suits and in the winter when it’s dark early in the morning and late afternoon. It’s a precaution, but a necessary one. These areas are intimidating, the crime rates high and my staff look affluent and are therefore easy prey to muggers.”
Higgins organises a football tournament to distract children during school holidays
In response to the acts of violence on Wimpey and Skanska’s sites, these companies have tightened security – a move welcomed by the Security Industry Authority. An SIA spokesperson stresses that technology, such as Wimpey’s CCTV, is as important as guards. He adds that a strong relationship with the police is vital to catch the criminals – Skanska always has a contact at local police stations, avoiding the need to call 999.
The spokesperson believes that security is getting more sophisticated as guards will have to be formally licensed as of 20 March next year – most leading security firms have started licensing their staff. This is costly, though, and the £400-600 invested in each guard is likely to be passed on to clients. The thinking is that contractors will have greater confidence in the security because of the improved training. But the spokesperson does concede that some clients look at security as a “grudge cost”.
Higgins Construction is looking beyond security measures. It set up a community relations team nine years ago, holding consultation sessions with residents to warn them of the impending noise and disruption to their lives. Refurbishing estates can mean being in someone’s home for five weeks ripping out their kitchen and bathroom and cluttering the garden with their equipment.
Higgins appoints local community chairmen to identify locals that are causing trouble, selling drugs or restricted by ASBOs. If they come near the site they are told how dangerous it is. Jeff Joseph, Higgins’ community development manager, says this has included putting a putting a hat in a hard hat and dropping a brick on it. When the coconut is removed unscathed, it shows the yob they would not have the equipment necessary to avoid harm if they infiltrated the site.
The biggest problem is during school holidays.
As Joseph puts it: “The kids see construction sites as adventure playgrounds.” Higgins organises football tournaments for children at these times to keep them occupied.
The NFB is tackling the problem by launching a poster campaign warning children away from sites, following statistics from the Health and Safety Executive that showed 16 a year are killed and 800 injured over the past decade.
Despite these advances, it seems the yob culture is developing apace – last week The Sun published a two-page spread crammed with pictures of people with ASBOs. The situation is so bad that some developments have become no-go areas: a journalist and a PR adviser were recently travelling to a Countryside Properties site in north London, when the taxi driver refused to drop them off in a particular estate. He parked some distance up the road: ”It’s too dodgy around there” being his explanation.
The Royal & Sun survey showed that 11% of all businesses targeted by yobs have considered relocating as a result of the attacks. If the vandals keep eating away at contractors’ profits, maybe they will follow the taxi driver’s example, making that left turn out of the rough estates that most need their renovation and construction skills.