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CROSS Safety Report

Frustration about getting a response to a public safety concern

Report ID: 1154 Published: 20 February 2023 Region: CROSS-UK


Overview

A member of the public reported a partially collapsed retaining structure to bodies they believed could be the responsible authority. Despite continued efforts to get attention to the issue, there was no apparent action to address the concern. This raised the reporter’s concern for public safety.

Key Learning Outcomes

For any observers of a potentially unsafe structure:

  • If you notice a potentially unsafe situation, consider reporting it to the likely owners or responsible bodies
  • If the owner is not established, then a regulator could be informed
  • Local authorities have powers to take action if there is an imminent risk to the public due to an unsafe structure

For public and private bodies and other asset owners:

  • Consider the effectiveness of procedures for the reporting by members of the public of infrastructure concerns

Full Report

Find out more about the Full Report

Our secure and confidential safety reporting system gives professionals the opportunity to share their experiences to help others. If you would like to know more, please visit the reporting to CROSS-AUS page. 

A structural engineer spotted a partially collapsed 4m high retaining structure during a walk. As a duty of care, they reported it to public bodies they believed could be the responsible authority. Despite continued efforts to get attention to the issue, there was no action visible to address the situation or indeed feedback on the issue reported. This raised the reporter’s concern for public safety around this particular structure and a wider concern as to the effectiveness of the responsible authority to manage infrastructure safety.

The retaining wall lined the sides of a river and supported a public walkway alongside the river with a busy urban rail station some distance behind. Sheet piling forming the lower part of the structure had collapsed with very significant visible deformation. The reporter believed the wall capacity was likely to have been severely reduced and the wall extremely vulnerable to scour and other damage. The reporter considered that further deterioration may cause a total collapse of the wall and the public walkway and that a detailed investigation by a qualified professional was required.

The reporter goes on to say that regardless of the likelihood of collapse, the structure must be inspected since the damage is very evident and casualties could result if the structure and supported public walkway were to collapse. Furthermore, although the rail station is some distance away, a progressive collapse of the entire wall would likely require the closure of the station.

the damage is very evident and casualties could result if the structure and supported public walkway were to collapse

The issue was reported to three authorities whom the reporter thought might have had jurisdiction. Two of the authorities replied saying that the structure was outside of their remit and directed to the third body. The third body did not reply despite two attempts by the reporter to submit a report and some correspondence with an online support person. Six months after reporting the issue there had been no visible action at the site or feedback from the public body concerned. 

The reporter believes that they have committed a disproportionate amount of time trying to report the issue and that either the authority’s reporting system was broken or there was no resource within the body to review incoming issues. The reporter concludes by saying that a centralised government or industry-led reporting system may be a better solution as individual authorities can be ineffective or poorly resourced and that the CROSS platform should be used as an example of good performance.

Expert Panel Comments

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An Expert Panel comment on the reports we receive. They use their experience to help you understand what can be learned from the reports. If you would like to know more, please visit the CROSS-AUS Expert Panel page.

As in this case, members of the public often believe it important, or indeed a civic duty, to warn duty holders of situations of public safety that concern them. It is therefore disappointing if some public bodies are apparently not able to respond reasonably to well-intended reports of potentially unsafe structures. The reports are, after all, intended to help the responsible body maintain a safe environment, which will be a high priority.

Local Authorities do have jurisdiction over structures that are imminently dangerous. Their powers however only extend to removing the imminent danger. If the danger is potential, they have no authority. It is clear though that the responsibility for any structure (or other infrastructure) always lies with the owner of the structure. The difficulty, however, particularly for members of the public, is determining which person or body owns the structure and is therefore responsible.

In this example, the reporter appears to have gone to significant effort to warn the responsible body of a potentially unsafe situation. Their actions were appropriate and, despite the stated lack of feedback, should have been an effective trigger to bring about any appropriate assessment of the situation. Three bodies were contacted and two responded expressing that the third body was possibly the responsible owner. A letter addressed to the Chief Executive of that organisation, describing the concern, and also detailing the difficulty in reporting the issue, would appear to be a helpful action to both assist public safety and alert the organisation to any weakness in their processes or resourcing.

a letter addressed to the Chief Executive of that organisation, describing the concern would appear to be a helpful action

Where a member of the public suspects that any asset under deterioration/distress/risk of collapse was potentially under the ownership of the railway authority, or might affect the railway, then they could contact Network Rail’s Asset Protection and Optimisation team at Asset Protection and Optimisation - Network Rail or at Contact us - Network Rail.

In all other cases, notifications to the Health and Safety Executive could be made and should result in a report being passed back to the likely owner(s) of the asset.

Gaps in asset knowledge

There may be an underlying issue of some infrastructure owners not having full information about some of their assets, and therefore not understanding their full liabilities. Again, if this were the case, detailed feedback by members of the public to potential owners of the concerning asset may expose any gap in the responsible body’s asset knowledge. Where members of the public go to efforts to report concerns, responsible bodies should in return acknowledge the situation and detail the actions they have put in place to deal with the issue or alert the asset owner if the asset is not their responsibility. Failing to respond to the member of the public would not be good practice.

CROSS report 723 No responsibility for damaged footbridge dealt with a not dissimilar case which also concluded that responsibility for maintaining a safe structure always rests with the owner. 

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