The Building Control sector is on the verge of major changes designed to improve the system in England and Wales, on the back of responses to the Communities and Local Government’s recent Future of Building Control consultation

Hopefully, many positives will emerge for those working within Building Control and, more importantly, for the public at large when the government’s review of the system is complete – clearer outlines are due to be published later this spring.

However, when examining some of the more widely supported government proposals, the major financial problems now being experienced by local authorities and the way they’re being forced to adapt pose a timely question: will major changes to the system be enough to make it fit for purpose?

There has long been widespread support for changes such as the extension of time limits for prosecutions, the limiting of building notices for minor works, closer working relationships with planning departments, the improvement of inspection regimes, clearer guidance to aid compliance, and a fairer pricing structure across the public/private sector tiers.

In addition to the Future of Building Control consultation, proposals are being examined to involve surveyors in a joint site inspection scheme with the HSE so it is clear that the majority of the issues around possible changes to the current system have one thing in common – they will have resource implications for Building Control managers.

Many local authority Building Control sections’ budgets are not ring-fenced. In better times, surplus income is fed into the general council budget and used on other projects instead of being used to balance Building Control budgets. In a downturn, Building Control departments that no longer have funds that can be stripped may not prove so popular with their councils, and could end up effectively being starved of the resources they need to meet changing business needs.

Recession will highlight the bumps and dips in the uneven playing field in the regulatory system

Add to this the fact that many clients now submitting Building Control applications will be under more pressure to reduce their costs and more likely to choose a private sector service based hundreds of miles from the site on a lowest cost basis, rather than on a basis of ensuring compliance through regular inspections. Put these issues together and it becomes clear that the recession will highlight the bumps and dips in the uneven playing field that already existed in the competitive regulatory system.

If the government is going to substantially alter the system, it must ensure that the foundations for these changes are solid and promote firm, fair and consistent local regulation that can be intertwined with local planning decisions – a factor that is becoming increasingly important under Part L. Far from promoting consistency, competitive regulation has bred more ‘inventive interpretation’ of legislative guidance than in any other regulatory area, which, in some cases, will not be conducive with optimum compliance.

Although the two-tier public and private approach that has been in place for nearly 25 years has resulted in a leaner and more accountable regulatory system, competitive regulation is not by any means a utopian model for regulation, otherwise it would be copied and not subject to a major review.

The role that all Building Control professionals play in the constant improvement of our built environment is set to increase in importance. It can surely only be of benefit to all concerned if resources are pooled to form a single, strong, consistent, publicly accountable, independently monitored regulatory body – drawing on the best in both public and private sector practice – with autonomy to make its own business decisions.

You can’t approach an alternative police, fire, planning or environmental health authority for a different or cheaper decision than that proposed in a particular locality. Why should the regulation of our built environment continue to be any different?