18th October, 2022

Can The Client Be The Principal Contractor Under CDM?

On construction projects with more than one contractor, clients must appoint a principal contractor. But what if you are managing the contractors yourself? What if no single contractor is in charge? Can the client be the principal contractor?

Can The Client Be The Principal Contractor Under CDM? header image

There's no rule that says the client and the principal contractor must be different people or businesses - the same person or organisation can be both the client, and the principal contractor under CDM. So the answer to the question 'can the client be the principal contractor?' is yes, in theory.

That doesn't always mean the client should be the principal contractor though. In fact, in most cases, they probably shouldn't. But there are particular cases where it makes sense, and we will discuss those scenarios in this blog post.

There can only be one principal contractor appointed on a project at any one time, and so careful consideration should be given as to who would be best to carry out the role. Especially since the client needs to appoint them in writing.

Knowing when the client can be the principal contractor, and when they can't, is mostly down to understanding the CDM roles - and the duties each role has.

Two of the key roles under CDM are those of the client and the principal contractor.

Who is the client?

Every CDM project has a client. The client is the person or organisation who the construction project is carried out for. So, the client - by default - is usually the person or business paying for the work. If you're "having work done" you're a client. If you're getting quotes from contractors, booking a contractor in to do work, or planning a construction project, you're probably the client.

Because they are the person paying for the work, selecting contractors, and influencing deadlines, clients can have a big impact on health and safety. If you squeeze the budget too tight, choose an incompetent contractor, or set an unrealistic deadline, corners get cut - and accidents tend to follow. So under CDM, clients have legal health and safety responsibilities.

Clients must make sure that the required duty holders are appointed, that relevant information is prepared and provided to other duty holders, that welfare facilities are provided, and that the principal designer and principal contractor carry out their duties under CDM 2015.

Find out more about client duties in our free CDM duty holder guide for clients.

Who is the principal contractor?

The principal contractor is the contractor in overall control of the construction phase. Because they are in charge of the construction site, they have many important duties to ensure the safety of the work.

principal contractor on construction site

Principal contractors are responsible for planning, managing, monitoring and coordinating the construction phase of the project, including preparing the construction phase plan, organising cooperation between contractors and coordinating their work and liaising with other duty holders.

They must make sure that suitable site inductions are provided, prevent unauthorised access, provide welfare facilities and consult and engage workers on health and safety matters.

You can find out more about principal contractor duties in our free CDM duty holder guide for principal contractors.

Appointment of the principal contractor by the client

The client must appoint a principal contractor on any project with more than one contractor. E.g. if you have an electrician and a plumber, you need a principal contractor. But there's nothing to say that the client cannot appoint themselves as the principal contractor.

In fact, if a client fails to appoint a principal contractor, they automatically become the principal contractor!

5.—(4) If the client fails to appoint a principal contractor, the client must fulfil the duties of the principal contractor[...]

As the client, if you appoint yourself as the principal contractor or fail to appoint a principal contractor, you have to carry out the duties of the principal contractor in addition to your CDM client duties.

client writing appointment

When can the client be the principal contractor?

Did you notice earlier that we described the principal contractor as "the contractor in overall control of the construction phase"? The CDM regulations themselves say that the principal contractor must be a contractor:

5.—(1)(b)a contractor as principal contractor.

In most cases, the client can only be the principal contractor when they are a contractor.

When the client is a developer

The most obvious time when a client can be the principal contractor is when a developer is carrying out a project. This is the most common type of project where the client and the principal contractor will be the same person or organisation.

A developer may buy a plot of land, or a building in need of refurbishment, carry out construction work, and then sell it on completion. They don't know who they are doing the work for because they don't know who the buyer is yet.

They are the client, because they own the land or building, and are carrying out the work for themselves.

But the developer might also be the best person to be the principal contractor - especially if they are in overall control of the construction phase, either completing work themselves or managing contractors on site.

When the client is managing the work

Another situation where the client might choose to also be the principal contractor under CDM is if they are having work carried out within their own occupied premises.

For example, a client running a factory where work will be carried out within the facility while it is still in use.

The client should still be classed as a contractor to be the principal contractor, but a contractor under CDM doesn't have to be on the tools. You can also be a contractor if you manage or control construction work.

“contractor” means any person (including a non-domestic client) who, in the course or furtherance of a business, carries out, manages or controls construction work;

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 Interpretation

If the client is going to be managing the project on the site, carrying out inductions, enforcing site rules, controlling the work, issuing permits etc, then it makes sense that they can be the principal contractor.

contractors discussing construction design

Of course, while you can carry out the role of principal contractor as a client - you don't have to. There is a fair bit of work involved with managing a construction project, and you could appoint the principal contractor role to another person or organisation who you put in control of the works.

When can't the client be the principal contractor?

To be a principal contractor you need to:

When the client isn't competent to be the principal contractor

The client really can't be the principal contractor if they don't have the skills, experience, knowledge or resources to carry out the role. If you don't have experience in the construction industry, it's unlikely you will be able to perform the role of the principal contractor.

8.—(1) A designer (including a principal designer) or contractor (including a principal contractor) appointed to work on a project must have the skills, knowledge and experience, and, if they are an organisation, the organisational capability, necessary to fulfil the role that they are appointed to undertake, in a manner that secures the health and safety of any person affected by the project.

The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 General duties

Just because a client is appointing subcontractors, and doesn't have a main contractor in charge of them all, does not mean they can, or should be, the principal contractor.

If you are taking on the role of principal contractor, you need to take the lead on health and safety during construction. Do you understand what the contractors are doing? Can you assess the hazards? Can you check their health and safety?

cdm meeting

When the client isn't managing the construction work

The client also shouldn't be the principal contractor if they are not planning to be available on the site. There are certain duties a principal contractor must carry out on site. Site inductions need to be provided, site security needs to be maintained, and work needs to be managed and monitored.

Whoever is appointed as the principal contractor needs a presence on site. If, as a client, you are not going to have the presence on site to carry out these duties, then you would not be able to comply with the principal contractor's requirements.


Get help with your principal contractor role with our CDM principal contractor support pack, including documents and training.

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This article was written by Emma at HASpod. Emma has over 10 years experience in health and safety and BSc (Hons) Construction Management. She is NEBOSH qualified and Tech IOSH.

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