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704 Who takes responsibility for preventing a failure?

Report ID: 704

Published: Newsletter No 51 - July 2018

Report Overview

After reading the SCOSS Alert on Hazard identification for structural design, a reporter was prompted to write to CROSS about how various parties involved with structural safety sometimes see their responsibilities.

Report Content

After reading the SCOSS Alert on Hazard identification for structural design, a reporter was prompted to write to CROSS about how various parties involved with structural safety sometimes see their responsibilities.

The reporter was consulted by a water company regarding a failed combined drainage system at the top of a cutting down to an old country road which has been reverted to a cycleway and footway. A circular slip had taken place causing displacement of the drainage line and caused instability to a row of large concrete fence posts which were precariously leaning towards the footway, at the top of the slip.

The highway authority disputed ownership of the bank, declaring that it was the landowner’s responsibility, but unfortunately the landowner was not able to do anything due to financial constraints. The reporter managed to persuade the water company's lawyer that, knowing a hazard exists, they had a professional duty to avert the danger to the safety of the public, even if they are not directly responsible. If they thought it was not their direct responsibility, they could always make a claim later.

The water company eventually agreed to reinstate the slip in gabions and to repair the pipe. It took a long time to reach this stage and by the time the work had started, the concrete fence posts had already fallen down, but luckily no one was walking by.

The reporter is concerned about general awareness of the lack of responsibility and unprofessional attitudes taken by some public authorities based on cut-backs and hiding behind lack of funds.


A not unusual situation with disputed ownership of assets and the reporter is right to point out that responsibilities must be accepted by public authorities in the public good. The reporter did well to get the situation resolved and the event could have been more serious had people been in the vicinity at the time of collapse.

The reason for the slip occurring is not known, but had there been a HSE investigation, the initial focus would be on the landowner, since those that create a risk are best placed to control it.  However, if there is a risk of serious personal injury and a lack of willingness from the highway authority to assist, then enforcement action could be taken against the highway authority to take steps to protect members of the public e.g. closing the footpath. SCOSS has previously recommended that there should be a duty to inspect incumbent on the owners of such assets.


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