Building’s Reform the Regs campaign kicked off a year ago with the aim of defeating baffling, contradictory and constrictive red tape. Thomas Lane casts his eye over the progress made and finds that things are getting simpler, which can only mean better

A year ago, Building launched its Reform the Regs campaign. Virtually everybody in the industry was frustrated, even angry, at the state of Building Regulations. A set of documents originally intended to make buildings safer and more efficient had become a ball and chain around everybody’s neck. The rules were so bloated and complex as to be self-defeating. People couldn’t keep up with the blizzard of new regulations. There were so many that some of them inevitably clashed, leaving specifiers scratching their heads over how to avoid contravention. Complexity was a major complaint. It had got to the stage where people were not complying with regulations because they could not understand them, particularly the dreaded Part L.

“Part L has been written for scientists rather than construction professionals,” grumbled building control officer Stuart Holt. “With all due respect, construction professionals are not scientists, and the outcome must be capable of being delivered practically and economically.”

These complaints were the catalyst for our campaign, which struck an immediate chord with the industry. Support flooded in from all sectors, including Constructing Excellence, the Construction Industry Council and the RICS. Smaller builders’ bodies, the National Federation of Builders and Federation of Master Builders, also came on board, as did specialist contractors, such as the Heating and Ventilating Contractors’ Association, and the Institute of Heating and Plumbing Engineering. The Local Authority Building Control, the control body, was right behind us and individual building control departments also got in touch.

Barely a week after the campaign launch, the ODPM acknowledged there was a problem. Housing minister Yvette Cooper admitted she was following the campaign “with interest”. She said she wanted to hear how improvements to building regulations could be made.

The campaign has borne results. A year on, and the Department for Communities and Local Government – formerly the ODPM – is now fully reviewing Building Regulations. The appointment of Angela Smith, minister for building regulations, in May was a key moment in moving things forward as she demanded reform. This was because the DCLG wanted greater compliance and the complex regulations hindered it. “Everything we are trying to do is to improve compliance,” she said in June. “What we want is the industry to be 100% compliant and make it as easy for them as possible.”

On 27 June, the DCLG held a round-table discussion with a cross-section of the industry to work out how to reform the rules. Many of the outcomes (see the Reform the Regs manifesto) were identical to those that came out of Building’s own round table discussion in March.

These included setting long-term performance targets with interim aims and replacing the A to P set of documents, which only refer to building elements, with guidance covering all elements of different building types.

Tragedies and setbacks

In August, tragedy struck when Anne Hemming, head of the buildings division at the DCLG and a key person in the reform process, was killed in a cycling accident. Without the guiding hand of a senior leader the process slowed down. “I think they have lost some momentum since Anne has gone,” commented Richard Brindley, the RIBA’s director of practice and a delegate at the DCLG’s round-table.

It’s trying to lessen the administrative burden of regulation on industry without affecting the content of the system

Paul Everall, LABC chief executive

There was very little progress until the beginning of October when the DCLG announced Anne Hemming’s replacement. Mark Coulshed, the former head of the local government strategy and research unit at the DCLG, took over at the beginning of October. It is understood Shona Dunn will replace him at the end of January when she returns from maternity leave.

So where does the reform process go from here? It is too early to tell what difference Coulshed and Dunn will make, but at least there is a senior civil servant in charge again. Smith is committed to the reform process. She reiterated her support for the programme at a fringe meeting during the Labour party conference.

“She said, ‘I want to make a difference’,” says Michael Ankers, chief executive of the Construction Products Association, who was also at the meeting.

According to Ankers, Smith spoke again about long-term performance targets, although she did not mention the future of the A to P documentation. She also spoke about arranging another stakeholders’ meeting.

The second front

According to the DCLG, a number of areas were identified at its round-table discussion for further work. A DCLG spokesperson said: “We expect to be in a position to make announcements later this year on the work we are doing with stakeholders, looking at issues of compliance, roles and responsibilities and alternative approaches, and at approaches to updating. We also expect later this year to be making an announcement on the Code for Sustainable Homes, which will be signposting the future direction for the Regulations”.

A parallel process to reduce regulation, the Better Regulations Executive, which reports to the Cabinet Office is also under way. It has asked government departments, including the DCLG, to prepare “simplification plans”.

“It’s trying to lessen the administrative burden of regulation on industry without affecting the content of the system,” explains Paul Everall, chief executive of the LABC.

It could reduce the number of notifications of work that contractors need to make during construction. It will be published at the end of the year and, if these initiatives deliver as promised, 2007 could be the beginning of a golden age of sensible regulation.