The housing minister seems to like the idea of changing the regulation-making process. Might it be, asks Paul Everall, that in future all changes happen at the same time?
There is probably no better time to write a column about Building Regulations than now as the construction industry and building control officers come to terms with the recently announced transitional provisions for Part L in England and Wales. They will undoubtedly create tremendous pressures on building control as developers seek to get their plans approved before 6 April and afterwards as everyone tries to adjust to the new system - for which many details are still awaited. Are housebuilders really going to be able to get airtightness tests done for a sample of their houses during the coming months? Will reliable energy ratings be available for all new buildings from 6 April?
At this moment I really fear for the future, not least because of the impact these arrangements will have on delivering the houses and other buildings this country needs. I am also worried that Local Authority Building Control and the ODPM will be overwhelmed with questions about the changes, which we at least will find it very difficult to answer
And so as we wait expectantly for the ODPM to announce its decisions on the implementation of Part L and to publish the approved documents, there is a temptation to focus only on this and not reflect on the regulations more generally. However, I have been encouraged in recent months that the housing minister, Yvette Cooper, appears to recognise that improvements can be made in the regulation-making process, and I hope we shall soon have the opportunity of debating that with her and her officials.
When I was head of the buildings division at the ODPM for the 13-and-a-half years before last March, one of the things I like to think I helped to achieve was far greater consultation with the industry and other interested parties on proposed changes to the regulations. Indeed, whatever other criticisms of Part L may be made, I don't think anyone would claim that the consultation process was inadequate.
What the ODPM has clearly found very difficult in the light of that consultation has been deciding on what changes to make, torn as they are between the demands of the climate change lobby to gain the maximum carbon savings possible and political and practical considerations as to what can reasonably be asked for when buildings are constructed. Although I have been among those pressing for decisions for many months now, I do understand just how difficult it can be, and just how many collective cabinet and parliamentary stages are involved.
One issue that I understand the ODPM is considering is whether we should move to a system whereby all parts of the regulations are amended at the same time - but only, say, every five or 10 years. In my current role as chief executive of LABC, the representative body for building control officers, I'm sure that my members would welcome that, as indeed would most architects, builders and others involved in the construction process. It would allow for systematic training in the new requirements and the contents of the approved documents, and people could be reassured that they would not face further changes in a couple of years' time.
One issue that I understand the ODPM is considering is whether we should move to a system whereby all parts of the regulations are amended at the same time – but only, say, every five or 10 years
The difficulty from a government perspective, as I see it, is that ministers often want to do something quickly to respond to political pressures. For example, when the Labour government came into power in 1997, the construction minister, Nick Raynsford, was determined to extend Part M to housing just as soon as it could be achieved. Likewise, the current changes to Part L were brought forward from the originally announced date of 2008 because of the cabinet's desire to achieve greater carbon savings to protect the planet.
I shall be very interested to see the government's proposals in due course. They are already talking about having only two possible commencement dates each year for all regulations, 6 April and 1 October.
But perhaps we should ask ourselves an even more fundamental question: just how wide should the scope of the Building Regulations be? The Construction Industry Council made representations to government a couple of years ago that all regulations affecting the construction process should be incorporated into a single of set of Building Regulations, so for example water efficiency would be controlled there rather than in separate regulations. I know that the CIC has been disappointed by the lack of response.
Also disappointed is Andrew Stunell MP, who successfully steered what is now the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act 2004 through parliament, and wonders why there is no sign of any regulations being made on either of these topics.
On the other hand, when I met Andrew in the House of Commons the other evening I also bumped into John Gummer, one of the secretaries of state for whom I used to work. When I told him what I was now doing he chided me that perhaps I would be more sympathetic to reducing significantly the scope of or even abolishing the Building Regulations, a topic on which we have had more than one heated debate in the past!
So perhaps the time has come for interested parties to discuss these issues. One of the things for which Building has been pressing in its Reform the Regs campaign is a summit on the regulations. I should be delighted if such an event were to take place, and of course I would hope for and expect LABC to be invited to the party!
Paul Everall is chief executive of Local Authority Building Control