The most significant change introduced by the CDM Regulations 2015 was the creation of the new role of the “Principal Designer”. Since the Regulations came into force in April, we have received many queries from clients about the nature of this role and who is best placed to perform it. While the role of Principal Designer is similar to the now defunct role of CDM Coordinator, there are differences which it is important to be aware of. Ultimate responsibility of ensuring a project complies with health and safety rests with the client and it is therefore vital that this appointment is made properly.  

The CDM Regulations 2015 require the client to appoint a Principal Designer if there is (or is likely to be) more than one contractor on the project. The Regulations go on to state this person must be “…a designer with control over the pre-construction phase as principal designer”. The Principal Designer’s duties therefore will include ensuring that other designers come together in such a way so as to ensure that the project is properly built and that health and safely is considered and implemented from the outset. A CDM Co-ordinator previously might only have been appointed after the design phase and when construction was underway, whereas now this role is embedded into the project from a much earlier point. The Principal Designer must also produce the health and safety file for the project.  

The HSE guidance does not specify exactly who the client should appoint to this role but the Regulations are clear that whoever takes it on needs appropriate technical knowledge of the industry and be capable of managing health and safety throughout the design process. It is therefore left to the client’s discretion as to who to appoint and, if it fails to do so, all the responsibilities of a Principal Designer will pass to the client.  

The following are commonly considered as potential candidates for the Principal Designer role:

  • Lead consultants (e.g. architects, engineers and surveyors) - given that any of these consultants may have already had a planning, managing and monitoring from the project’s inception, any one of them could perhaps satisfy the requirement of the Regulations to have been engaged early in the design phase. However, the client must ensure that any such lead consultant has the necessary experience and qualifications to carry out the role and is able to produce a compliant health and safety file. Many design practices have engaged former CDM Co-ordinators to provide in-house expertise on health and safety to ensure the organisation has all the expertise necessary to carry out the role.
  • CDM Co-ordinator – provided the former CDM Co-ordinator is able to meet the new requirement to have been involved from an early stage, there is nothing to prevent a former CDM Co-ordinator being subsequently appointed as Principal Designer as long as it also has design responsibility in relation to the project. However it is worth remembering that traditionally a CDM Co-ordinator would be construed as having a ‘separate’ role in the project and would not be embedded into the early design phase to quite the extent as the Principal Designer is anticipated to be under the 2015 Regulations.
  • Design & Build Contractor - there is nothing in the Regulations that prevents the Principal Designer and Principal Contractor being the same person. However the Regulations require the Principal Designer to perform a monitoring role which is perhaps easier and more effective if it is separate to the Principal Contractor. In addition, the time at which the Design & Build Contractor is engaged is critical as the client will need to ensure that, as Principal Designer, it is also part of the early design (pre-construction) phase.
  • Client – as above, there is nothing prohibiting the roles set out in the CDM Regulations 2015 from being merged. However if the Client is to be the Principal Designer, then it will have the added burden of ensuring that it fulfils all of the Principal Designer’s obligations as well as its own including the provision of information, eliminating risks to H&S at all stages of the project and feeding into the design process (sequencing, timing etc) as necessary. It would also have to produce a compliant health and safety file.

The possibilities above are by no means exhaustive and clearly the individual requirements of any project will, to a large extent, dictate which is the most appropriate option. We would also highlight that, while there some transitory arrangements in place, the 2015 Regulations are in force now and therefore it is vital that the decision of whoever is to take on the role of the Principal Designer is given high priority and consideration as early as possible.