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An inspector calls

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Architects should consider the particular strengths of building inspectors and approved inspectors before selection

There have been two major changes in the Building Control world in the past decade or so. The first was the replacement of the stiflingly prescriptive regulatory format with a more flexible functional arrangement. The second was the move to separate the service into advice and enforcement segments and introduce private-sector competition. As a result, advice is now available from both the public and private sectors with the enforcement scenario resting exclusively with the local authority.The building control sector now operates in a professional environment of discussion and agreement and wishes to be clearly appreciated as a specialist consultancy within the construction industry.

Where once designers submitted plans for approval at the very last minute and were indignant at even the smallest suggestion of change we are now beginning to be approached at the earliest of stages for advice. It is not unusual - in fact it is becoming increasingly common - for the building control surveyor to be invited to become part of the design team.

The current merger talks between the Institute of Building Control and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors reflect recognition of this change in attitude to the profession.

There has been great change but there are still many people within the industry who are unclear on the public/private set up, which is leading to myths and confusion.

In 1985 the Conservative government introduced the concept of private-sector building control as an alternative to the local authority system. An approval and licensing process was established to allow the new providers to take their place alongside the local authority system.

These new providers were to operate as Approved Inspectors (AIs).

Before an AI is able to practise they must receive approval from a panel administered on behalf of the government by the Construction Industry Council.

This type of third party independence ensures that there is no question of improper financial interest. The approval and licensing process is also designed to monitor standards.

The AIs are required to maintain adequate insurance to ensure that, as far as building control duties of care are concerned, the client is covered as they would be under local authority building control.

Initially there were problems with the provision of suitable insurance for the new industry. The National House Builders Council (NHBC), which has an insurance background and therefore didn't experience such problems in organising cover, decided to offer a building control service in addition to its house warranty provision. It gained AI status for its new NHBC Building Control company and local authorities and the NHBC have been competing for work in the house building market ever since.The NHBC was later granted scope to cover all building types.

Continued insurance problems prevented other bodies from applying to practise until 1997 when there were further appointments to both corporate AIs and private individual AIs. The problems still exist in relation to housebuilding, but the government has recently released a paper on new insurance provision which should allow other AIs to enter that marketplace.

I believe that the public sector side of our profession has handled the introduction of a competitive environment very well and, after a few teething troubles, the two facets of the profession are now working together to ensure that standards are maintained. Last year saw the publication of a joint document, Building Control, Performance Standards, which details the levels of service that the client should expect to receive.

So, how do the providers differ? You will probably see little difference in their general interpretation and advice. It is in other areas that they show their strengths and that is where you will need to make your decisions. If a rapid site response is required, the local authority may be able to offer more. If continued partnership with one person is required, regardless of the location, then the AImay be more suitable.Obviously, cost is a factor and AIs are free to negotiate, whereas the local authority may be more tied. However, it is becoming increasingly usual for local authorities to be able to negotiate - especially on large projects.

Generally, AIs seem to favour multilocation, corporate build (for example, chain store) development programmes but will undoubtedly be interested in any commercial project. Local authorities, on the other hand, are not permitted to operate in any geographical area other than their own.However, they have often joined forces to allow one local authority to 'partner' with developers and/or architects on checking project plans, regardless of location.

The building control service is a vastly different one to the one I joined 25 years ago.We still have a lot to achieve in terms of awareness, but a new ally is at hand - Mr Bentley the Building Inspector - a new character in the Bob the Builder children's TVprogramme. Although I'm told his character is far from glamorous there's no such thing as bad publicity.

David McCullogh is vice-president of the Institute of Building Control

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