Police officer, health and safety inspector, site waste manager and sustainability expert – the list of possible roles for building control surveyors is growing. As the government draws up plans for the future of building control, Elaine Knutt asks if the profession is facing an identity crisis

When the DCLG launched last year’s Future of Building Control consultation, it would have been hard to find anyone in the industry who preferred the status quo. When building control procedures had become out of step with the way complex buildings are designed, when contractors could shop around for different interpretations and sustainability targets were proliferating, there was clearly a backlog of issues to address.

But a year later, and it looks as if the review will only please those who like things to stay as they are. For some in the industry, it’s a missed opportunity to harness the skills of 4500 skilled professionals to drive through improvement on site waste, unsafe practice and low carbon compliance. For others, it’s a wasted chance to strip away the accumulated confusion over the building control’s role, and leave a profession with a fixed, clear purpose.

Meanwhile, the credit crunch is starving building control departments of fee income and resources, jeopardising those reforms that are likely to be implemented And now there’s a separate but simultaneous move to link building control far more closely with the work of health and safety inspectors under a joint working protocol. In effect, it would turn building control surveyors into the eyes and ears of the HSE – and in so doing raise potential conflicts of interest.

‘Building control probably does need to regroup for today’s age, but my criticism is that the review doesn’t go anywhere near far enough,’ says Peter Chilvers, a building control surveyor at PRP Architects. ‘To my mind, the problem is there are 300 or 400 different units in England and Wales, and no common management or technical policies.’

Chris Woods, research and development director at Wates Group, sees the problem form a contractor’s perspective. ‘When we put a tender together, we interpret the legislation, and we often need clarification from building control. Some departments see that as part of their job, and some don’t. As a national contractor, we want consistency across the country, and simple legislation where you can prove compliance by simple tests rather than lots of documentation.’

At first, the review looked as if it might satisfy these critics. Ideas included contractors or designers ‘self-certifying’ their projects as compliant with Building Regulations, as electricians are able to do under Part P. There were also calls for a thorough overhaul of the regs in the light of new sustainability targets outside the system, from the Code for Sustainable Homes to the Merton Rule to Energy Performance Certificates.

But when the DCLG publishes its proposals – due in March or April – it’s likely they will nip and tuck the system we already have. Builders will be able to submit initial application notices online, and the Approved Documents will be re-edited to make them easier to understand. We could also see publication of approved guides on certain building types, for example loft extensions.

Building control surveyors will be able to use risk assessments to agree on the number of site inspections at the outset. And the DCLG will also commit to only altering each Part of the regulation once every six years, while changes will only be introduced on a fixed three-year timetable.

The proposals are also likely to include greater ‘police’ powers for building control officers to issue ‘stop’ notices on sites where work is in dangerous contravention of Building Regs, or on the spot fines. The move is welcomed by Steve Evans, chief building control surveyor at Milton Keynes Council.

‘It’s a strengthening of our enforcing armoury, and an alternative to the formal magistrates’ court process.’

In 20 years i’ve always been able to get things done without going to court

Andrew Jones, Cotswold Council

However, Andrew Jones, of Cotswold District Council, fears the powers could be too heavy handed, undermining building control’s traditional role as a friendly source of advice. ‘In 20 years, I’ve always been able to get things done without going to court. And would our competitors [in the private sector] ever use these powers?’

But it’s the initiative outside the formal consultation – the joint working protocol with the HSE – that promises the biggest shake-up. Moves to convert building control surveyors into the foot soldiers of the HSE would undoubtedly help fill gaps in the HSE’s overstretched inspection service, and would be welcomed by many in the industry.

But Phil Hammond, business development director at Local Authority Building Control, acknowledges that a health and safety ‘hat’ could have perverse consequences. ‘If we become seen as a police force, then some smaller builders could just avoid us.’

He’s referring to illegal sites that are never notified to building control, nor ever see an architect or engineer. ‘Would it scare some people away and just expand the grey market, driving the worse cases underground?’

Meanwhile, Geoff Wilkinson, vice chairman of the Association of Consultant Approved Inspectors, sees the move as an opportunity for his members.

‘A lot of our members offer planning supervisor services, anyway, so we strongly support closer working relations between the building control function and CDM co-ordination.’

Last year’s consultation also prompted discussion, within BRE and CIRIA, that building control surveyors should promote waste minimisation and compliance with Site Waste Management Plans. The idea had a logical appeal, particularly in helping to raise standards for small to medium contractors.

But Hammond predicts this is one hat that building control surveyors won’t be wearing just yet. ‘It looks like it isn’t a priority for DCLG. You can see the synergies, and we’d support any initiative, but it would have to involve training and information campaigns for the wider industry, too.’

The Future of Building Control came at a time when many sections of the industry felt the current system was no longer fit for the purpose of regulating and raising standards in modern projects. The government, it seems, disagrees, and will improve the running of the current system rather than revolutionising it. But by not addressing the underlying issues, there are fears that building control surveyors will carry on juggling too many hats.

Why building control is putting on its safety hat

Since last autumn, senior directors in the HSE’s construction team have been progressing a tripartite joint working protocol with Local Authority Building Control representing council staff, and the Association of Consultant Approved Inspectors, representing private sector consultants.

A draft is due to be completed and discussed shortly, and full, national rollout possible by the end of 2009. In parallel, there are plans for a pilot scheme run from the HSE London office and starting on April 1.

‘When building control officers were overwhelmed with work, there wasn’t much time to look at Health and Safety issues, so the recession is a good time to develop a joint working protocol with the HSE,” says Paul Everall, chief executive of LABC.

Building control surveyors have no powers under the Health & Safety at Work Act. But, as with any other building professionals, they do have a responsibility to promote safe working. On the other hand, co-operation and communication between the two professions has typically been patchy.

‘There have been instances where we have reported what we think are breaches in Milton Keynes, and we’ve heard nothing back,’ says Steve Evans, chief building control surveyor at Milton Keynes Council.

The protocol aims to establish clear procedures to facilitate two-way information sharing, for example on what photographic and documentary evidence building control should provide to the HSE, and how the HSE informs them of progress.

‘If there is enough evidence, the HSE can take a desk-top prosecution – without even having to visit the site. The protocol will draw up what information is needed, and a feedback loop to the local authority building control inspector,’ says Evans. He is involved in putting together the London regional pilot scheme, covering five local authorities.

Everall also anticipates that the protocol could cover shared training sessions, and joint visits to major projects. ‘These would identify high-risk areas, and the building control officers would be asked to keep an eye on it when making their regular visits.’

A spokesperson for the HSE said: ‘Discussions are at an early stage while we look into what can be done to develop closer working relationships between HSE, Local Authority Building Control and independent Approved Inspectors. The hope is that working more closely will help to improve standards on site and reduce accidents. But it would be premature to speculate what form any agreement might take, or what the effect might be.’