Principal Designer role is misunderstood – and that is putting construction workers at risk

Alan Robson, founder of Liverpool-based consultancy Project Four, claims the industry has ‘gone backwards’ despite new CDM regulations coming into force in 2015. Tony McDonough reports

Project Four
Alan Robson and Max Meadows, co-directors of Project Four


One of the North West’s leading construction safety experts says industry confusion over who is responsible for project health and safety is exposing clients, designers, contractors and operators to unnecessary risk.

Alan Robson, founder of Liverpool-based consultancy Project Four, claims the industry has “gone backwards” despite new construction, design and management (CDM) regulations coming into force in 2015.

CDM 2015 put greater accountability on the main client of any project to have the overall responsibility for CDM planning. The definition of a client has been broadened to any organisation or individual overseeing any kind of construction project.

So, for example, a TV production company or an event organiser building temporary structures used for events, television, film and entertainment purposes would come under the scope of the regulations.

It removed the myth that CDM only applies to certain projects. It applies to all projects, including domestic.

More confusion

Prior to 2015,  much of the responsibility fell on the shoulders of the CDM coordinator but CDM 2015 scrapped this role and it specified that any project which involves more than one contractor required the appointment of what is called a ‘Principal Designer’.

However, according to Alan, whose company is currently involved in construction projects worth more than £550m, the creation of the Principal Designer role has created more, not less, confusion about construction health and safety planning and co-ordination.

Failed to deliver

He explained: “As an industry, for many years we have too often failed to deliver positive and proactive design risk management and demonstrating the principle of prevention – with the onus often pushed from the design stage for contractors to deal with.

“CDM 2015 was intended to address this but that has not happened in practice. First thing to say about the Principal Designer role is that his or her primary function is not design – it is a coordination role.

“However, some people also believe it directly replaces the old CDM coordinator role – it doesn’t. Following the introduction of the new regulations there was a panic among CDM and safety professionals about what would happen to their businesses and they set themselves up as Principal Designers – often they weren’t qualified to take it on.”

Alan says there is a specific definition of a Principal Designer available, one of which states it must offer skills, knowledge and experience relevant to the design, construction, maintenance and use of the project. 

worker, building, construction
CDM applies to all projects, including domestic, whatever the size


Minimise costs

He added: “Too often as health and safety professionals we have seen the role done badly – and that is a problem because it means people are being put at risk, either at pre-construction, construction or post-handover completion.

“Our architect/designer clients are the first to admit that they are not necessarily best placed to take it on. Despite having up to eight years of training, very little of it will have been on CDM.

“The value and effectiveness of planning supervisors and CDM coordinators were de-valued, I believe, because the large multi-disciplinary practices thought they could minimise costs by providing a dual role via either the quantity surveyor or project manager.

“That role has often then become a bureaucratic one focused on box-ticking rather than what it should be – a proactive exercise in design risk management, that can add value from start to completion, to handover and operation.

“Too many clients are adopting a position of ignorance and it means the industry has gone backwards.”

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