In the week that the RICS lent its support to Building’s Reform the Regs campaign, Sarah Richardson spent a day with Leeds building control to witness the problems at ground level

By rights, the Compton Arms shouldn’t be standing. It’s the carcass of a pub in the dilapidated Harehills district of Leeds, and it has seen more arson attacks than drinkers in the past two years. When it was in business it was notorious for drugs dealers. Now its bricked-up windows, boarded doors and stripped roof are signs of regular break-ins. A broken lamp swings ominously from the rafters.

The demolition of the Compton Arms has stalled … so all building control inspector Trevor Hall can do is tape up the entrance.
The demolition of the Compton Arms has stalled … so all building control inspector Trevor Hall can do is tape up the entrance.

“Previously we may have issued a straightforward demolition notice, but with today’s rules it’s too hard to prove something’s dangerous,” says Trevor Hall, a building control inspector with Leeds council, as he tapes up the front entrance. He explains that rather than serving an immediate demolition order he has given the owners notice to carry out repairs within four months. “To order demolition would leave the authority open to contention,” he says.

The case of the Compton Arms highlights a growing fear among building control inspectors that their decisions will be challenged; a fear that Bob Young, Leeds council’s building standards manager, says is having a dramatic impact on enforcement: he cannot recall the body taking a single case to court over the past year. He explains: “They say buildings must perform ‘adequately’, but what does that mean? We have to prove that what has been done isn’t adequate if we want to take a case on. It’s a huge problem.”

I’m genuinely frightened by Part L. Enforcement will be very difficult

Bob Young

Young insists that regulations should be simplified to allow more consistent interpretation. “I can understand why legal requirements have to keep pace with the industry, and why Building Regulations have to change,” he says. “But at the moment it’s too complicated.” Young thinks that at the moment there are too many hidden clauses within a single set of regulations, let alone between sections. “We even have different interpretations within the office, so there isn’t a hope in hell for architects and developers who want to get it right.”

One area causing a particular headache to the division is Part B, which deals with fire regulations. This governs the number of escape staircases that must be incorporated into a building. With a succession of high-rise housing developments planned around Leeds city centre, Young’s inspectors have found it difficult to determine how many flats can be built without a further stairwell. “There’s one developer that always tries to extend the difference between the number of stairways and the size of a development,” says one inspector. “We have to be careful.”

Another frequent issue is the lack of co-ordination between Part B and Part M, which deals with disabled access. If there is a stair lift in an escape stairwell, it reduces the width of the escape route. So it is possible to argue that the lift should be docked at the top or bottom, but this does not take into account the operating rail. “If four of our officers can differ in their interpretations, then there’s clearly a problem,” Young says. “But we have to make a decision, whether it’s right or wrong.”

The current regulations may already be creating problems for Young’s officers, but he fears this will become worse next year when Part L, the revised set of energy regulations, is introduced. “I’m genuinely frightened by Part L,” he says. “It looks to be so complicated that enforcement will be very difficult. Coping with the one we have now is tough enough.” And, according to Young, that complexity means that the government is in danger of undermining its own sustainability policy. Because it will be so difficult to implement Part L, and because it does not affect health and safety, Young says inspectors will tend to put it to the back of their minds.

If the regulations are not simplified, Young says building control departments will have to resort to consultants. Leeds building control has an in-house team of structural specialists to provide guidance on Part A, which covers structures. Young says the council may have to set up similar teams to deal with Part L and the electrical safety regulations contained in Part P, or hire specialist contractors.

Hall inspects foundations that will require structural experts to determine whether or not they are too close to the road
Hall inspects foundations that will require structural experts to determine whether or not they are too close to the road

But extra resources can be employed only if the a council is willing to provide them. Building control departments often feel they play second fiddle to “public facing” departments such as social services. Here, Young thinks it would help to take building control away from local authorities and give it to a dedicated central government body, similar to the Health and Safety Executive. This would allow a consistent funding policy, and would lead to better working relationships with other council bodies.

Even if these wishes are granted, Young says the Building Regulations can no longer be relied on as a source of irrefutable legality. He says their increasing complexity mean there is a bright future for self-certification schemes such as the robust standard details used in the acoustic regulations. “We are clearly going down that road. It’s fine, but only provided registration for the competent persons who will assess the schemes doesn’t drag on like it has with Part P. We still need Building Regulations, but we also need more self-certification as we can’t cope. It’s getting ridiculous.”

As Young glances at a highlighted copy of the fire regulations, in which the word “adequately” has been repeatedly singled out for attention, he offers one final solution to the daily struggle with red tape. “I’m coming to the end of my career, you know. I’ve been thinking about it, and with any luck I’ll be retired before half of these things come through.” Unfortunately, most of his team don’t have that option to fall back on.