The Construction Products Association's John Tebbit finds that there's a worrying degree of rule-bending when it comes to complying with Building Regulations

Compliance n 1 act of complying with; 2 ability to bend rules

While many fret over the latest changes to Building Regulations or European standards, fewer people concern themselves with the question of compliance.

Yet in the past month, I have been told by a building control officer that his authority does not build its own schools to Part L 2002 because that would be too expensive (wait for the 2006 bill) and that, anyway, they only check for Parts A, B and M (structure, fire and disabled access). I am also working with a couple of member trade associations on the problem of imported products with false CE marking and the unwillingness of the authorities to deal with it. So who is supposed to do what?

Building Regulations are the primary regulations for most buildings. They are framed as a set of regulations supported by guidance - the approved documents - and other referenced documentation such as European standards, which include structural design Eurocodes and guidance from trade associations or professional institutes.

Some sectors such as education have their own extra guidance but this generally adds to Building Regulations rather than replacing them.

There are several routes for assessing compliance with Building Regulations. Note that building control has to be happy with all aspects of the building - structural, acoustics, energy and so on. The following points apply to England and Wales; Scotland and Northern Ireland are different in some areas. The routes are:

  • Local authority building control This is run by the borough and unitary councils with about 4000 building control officers employed by the councils. The income from applications and inspections should be ringfenced to ensure proper funding of the service but there is a widespread belief that most councils are not honouring this and are taking money out of building control. This is leading to under-funding and a lack of enforcement, particularly in complicated areas such as Part L.
  • Approved inspectors This is a private sector version of local authority building control. There are two types of approved inspectors: individual (from 1997) and corporate (from 1999). Both are regulated under a scheme set up by the ODPM and run by the Construction Industry Council. Corporate members include the NHBC and financial service provider Zurich, which also offer warranty schemes that should not be confused with building control.
  • Competent persons schemes Administered by the ODPM, these cover areas including replacement windows and doors, boiler systems and electrical and gas installations. A scheme is being considered for flat roofing. Membership of a scheme allows individuals to self-certify that their work meets the requirements of the relevant Building Regulations.
  • Robust Details This is a company set up to offer an alternative to pre-completion testing of party walls and floors, as required under Part E (acoustics). Builders can register and use approved construction details, which are designed to provide greater insulation than is required under Part E. In return, the builder avoids pre-completion testing.
If there are issues with products before they get incorporated into buildings, it is the responsibility of the local authority trading standards officers (environmental health officers in Northern Ireland). Note that trading standards officers are often based in county councils rather than boroughs. They cover a wide range of consumer products from toys to cars, microwaves to medicines, so construction products are low on their list of priorities.

While European standards and CE marking have made life easier for manufacturers to sell across Europe, there are complications for trading standards. Any product carrying a CE marking is presumed to meet the regulations. If a trading standards officer believes the CE marking is false, the officer has to pay for the work to show this. Consequently, there is a big disincentive to check CE-marked products.

At the heart of building control and trading standards is the question of funding to ensure effective enforcement. There is unwillingness from the government to accept that there is a problem, because it raises awkward questions of funding, increasing work for local authorities and greater complexity. The other reason is that it conflicts with the political need of ministers to be seen to be doing something - that is, changing regulations. In the promised review of the structure of the Building Regulations, better enforcement must play a central role in achieving higher levels of compliance. Otherwise, Part L, along with other Building Regulations and product safety, will be so much hot air.