We have a new government with its own ideas about building control. So, what do we know so far about Con/Lib plans for regulation, asks Paul Everall, and what could they mean for the industry?

A few weeks have now gone by since the general election and a new coalition government is in place. What can those of us who work in building control, and those of you affected directly by it, expect from the new administration, and what do we have to fear?

Three years ago the Conservative party published a paper which suggested that Building Regulations could be replaced by standards and that much of building control could be abandoned, with the industry left to police itself. There was almost universal opposition in the industry to this proposal. The LABC and five other professional bodies formed the Building Control Alliance and Building ran a campaign to reform rather than overthrow the Building Regulations.

A couple of months ago I was assured by Grant Shapps, the new housing minister, that the Conservative party no longer had any such plans for wholesale scrapping of the regulations. I do not believe the Liberal Democrats do either. Indeed, one of their coalition negotiating team, and now a minister in the communities department, was Andrew Stunell, who was instrumental in getting the Sustainable and Secure Buildings Act through parliament. The main provisions of that act, giving the government wider powers to create Building Regulations, were never implemented by the previous administration. It will be interesting to see if they are now.

However, it would be unwise of us to be complacent. After all, in the run-up to the general election, the Conservative party did say that it wished to reduce the regulatory burden on industry and society. How might the government set about this?

A new administration

When the election was called, my former colleagues in the civil service would have studied all three main party manifestos carefully, and noted all the proposals relevant to their department. The time normally spent advising ministers and supporting them in parliament would have been spent instead in preparing three different sets of proposals, one for each of the parties.

In the days after this election an attempt would have been made to reconcile those briefs that had been prepared for the Conservative and Liberal Democrat administrations. A proposal like reducing regulation would therefore be studied by the Better Regulation Unit in each department, and they would list policy areas in which this principle might be applied. In the communities department I feel sure that the Building Regulations would have been scrutinised to see where burden reductions could be made.

One factor that those busy civil servants would have needed to bear in mind is that the content of the Building Regulations and associated laws is affected by legislation coming from Brussels. I’m thinking in particular of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive which requires member states, among other things, to pass legislation requiring the energy labelling of buildings and the inspection of boilers and air conditioning plant. A second, more stringent version of the directive has passed through all its European legislative stages, and should be published shortly.

The Construction Products Regulations are making slow progress, but if and when they are approved they will apply directly to member states without requiring additional national legislation. They will replace the largely ineffective Construction Products Directive.

Will it work this time?

The previous Labour government also wished to reduce the regulatory burden associated with the Building Regulations, and in their implementation plan for the future of building control they set out various ways in which this could be achieved. For example, they decided that no part of the Building Regulations, apart from Part L, should be amended more often than once every six years. This, it was hoped, would stop the industry always having to get used to new rules.

Part L was seen to be different because energy efficiency regulations need to made more stringent this year and in 2013 and 2016 in order to achieve zero-carbon homes by
the latter year. I believe that the new administration also recognises the importance of achieving carbon reductions to slow down climate change.

So I hope we can look forward to a continuation of those plans to reform and improve building control. Already we have seen appear the first project guide - for loft conversions - which is part of this aspiration and a review of competent person schemes has been completed. Good work has been done on developing a risk assessment methodology for deciding when site inspections should be made, and in reviewing the enforcement powers available to building control bodies.

Local authorities are working towards restricting the use of the building notice procedure so that more plans are submitted, and checked before work starts, because
it actually reduces the burden on the industry if errors are corrected at the planning stage instead of trying to sort the problem out when construction work is well advanced.

Provided the new government is serious about improving the building control system in England and Wales, I look forward very much to seeing what they propose. In the meantime we shall continue to try and administer the existing system as effectively and efficiently as possible.