Building regulations expert Geoff Wilkinson tries to predict the actions a Conservative party promising ‘radical change’
In a 2006 article on recruitment problems in building control departments, the Guardian noted that 50 per cent of local authority building control staff in London were due to retire by 2012. Combined with the need for sweeping cuts to non-essential public services, this means that an incoming Conservative administration would need to look at alternative models to reduce the burden on the current system.
One option would be to extend the competent person scheme, which already exists for the boiler, electrical and window industries. A consultation paper, released by Communities and Local Government on 23 December 2009, discusses proposed changes to the competent person approval process and paves the way for expansion of the schemes.
Competent person schemes were introduced to allow individuals and enterprises to self-certify that their work complies with the building regulations rather than submitting a building notice, thus avoiding the need for local authority inspections and fees. It is likely that a Conservative administration would speed up the move towards self-certification, reduce costs for firms joining recognised schemes and promote training and competence within the industry. It would also underpin proposals to tackle the problem of ‘cowboy builders’, and assist local authorities with enforcement of the building regulations.
A 2009 press release by Local Authority Building Control (LABC) claims that the regulations are being enforced, and quotes many examples of interventions by their officers on submitted applications. Although the LABC does good work in cases where applications are submitted, this misses the significant problem of work that is outside the system, in particular the output of cowboy builders and DIY enthusiasts.
Local authorities used to employ district surveyors who would literally spend their time surveying the district, and would report unauthorised works. In the 1990s, one local authority that I worked for sent out a weekend patrol because so many re-roofing projects were being carried out by cowboys. Now, few councils have a dedicated enforcement team. Most divert resources to compete with approved inspectors of commercial sector work, which carries greater fees. Architecture has born the brunt of the recession and the number of practitioners claiming benefit has risen faster than any other profession.
With a little training, support software and handheld inspection tools, architects could self-certify small domestic buildings. This would release LABC staff to concentrate on protection matters, such as enforcement of unauthorised works, dangerous structures and health and safety on building sites.
Such a proposal could form a logical extension of the competent person schemes or, alternatively, architects could register as individual approved inspectors, a rarely used category that the Construction Industry Council has considered removing. It would require a simple change to restrict the individual licenses to small domestic works only, and it should be noted that there is a precedent for such a restriction. The first approved inspector license, which was awarded to the National House-Building Council in 1985, was limited in this way, and the current system (regulation 10 of the approved inspector regulations) envisaged such a scheme, as it allows inspectors to have a design interest in buildings of this type.
With the Conservative party promising radical change, this could be the model for building regulations should David Cameron triumph in this year’s general election.
Geoff Wilkinson is a building regulations expert and former vice-chair of the Association of Consulting Approved Inspectors (ACAI)