When Building began its campaign to sort out the impossible mess that built environment regulation had become, it received immediate support from practically everyone who had to comply with it, enforce it or devise it. Thomas Lane explains what happened next …

he government has begun the process of reforming Building Regulations, less than a year after Building launched its Reform the Regs campaign. Naturally we are delighted that our campaign has enjoyed such success and that, fingers crossed, the construction industry will find complying with Buildings Regulations easier once the DCLG has concluded its review of the Building Regulations and implemented change. So how did the story of this campaign to reform Building Regulations unfold?

When we launched the campaign on 21 October last year, we were not sure what sort of response we would get. But the campaign clearly hit a chord as the emails and letters started flooding in from across the industry. Big industry bodies backed the campaign, including Constructing Excellence, the Construction Industry Council and the RICS. The National Federation of Builders and the Federation of Master Builders lent us their support, as did the Housebuilders Federation. Product makers support came from the Construction Products Association, and specialist contractor backing from the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association and the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering. Even building control was behind us: LABC gave its backing and we had letters of support from individual building control departments.

It seemed that just about everyone was hacked off with the state of the regulations. The sheer volume of new ones was a big issue, as the Building Regulations are, on average, amended once every four months. This, on top of a torrent of other regulations, including technical standards and European directives, was making it difficult for the industry to understand the rules, much less comply with them. John Ray of the Hitchin Property Trust, spoke for many when he said: “As a property management company we are swamped by the continuing tidal wave of legislation, all of which requires us to employ outside specialists – many of whom appear to be making their professions up as they go along.”

Conflict between regulations and other legislation was also identified as a problem. This includes inconsistencies between the Building Regulations themselves: one part might try to prevent fire from moving through a building whereas another tried to make it easy for people with disabilities to do the same thing.

A growing problem is planners who are moving onto territory traditionally occupied by the Building Regulations. They are increasingly using supplementary planning documents to demand new developments have energy saving measures that go above and beyond the Building Regulations. “As the stringency of the regulations increases there will be a greater need for one system of combined planning and building regulation,” said Simon Foxall, principal of the Architect’s Practice. “It needs to be dealt with urgently before it grows out of control and we become gridlocked by conflicting demands.”

The biggest complaint, however, was the sheer complexity of the regulations, with Part L being the worst offender. “Part L has been written for scientists rather than construction professionals,” grumbled building control officer Stuart Holt. “With all due respect, construction professionals are not scientists, and the outcome must be capable of being delivered practically and economically.” This complexity means non-compliance is a big problem, as the industry – including its building control departments – cannot understand the regulations. “The regulations are now so extensive, so complex and change so frequently that I don’t feel confident that any project I’m working on fully meets them,” warned Richard Diebelius, design manager at Mitchell Design & Construct.

Yvette Cooper then announced the ODPM’s intention to evelop a revised process for updating the Building Regs

Non-compliance means buildings potentially perform badly and could even be unsafe, an issue that concerned the ODPM. So it was no great surprise when, just a week after we launched our campaign, it acknowledged that there were indeed problems. Housing minister Yvette Cooper said she was following the campaign “with interest” and was keen to hear views on how improvements to building standards could be made. Six weeks later, on 9 December, Cooper announced the ODPM’s intention to develop a revised process for updating Building Regulations so these could be improved in a simpler, more transparent and less piecemeal manner.

But because the ODPM was so busy with its revisions to Part L, nothing happened. This generated further frustration, confusion and anger, and thereby neatly encapsulated all that was wrong with the Building Regulations. Part L was rushed through so quickly that its accompanying guidance documents were not ready and the software used to calculate compliance came up with unexpected results. In the end, the approved document was published three weeks before the implementation of the new rules, which left the industry hardly any time to get up to speed and work out how to comply.

To coincide with the publication of Part L on 15 March, Building hosted a summit looking at how the Building Regulations might be reformed. It was attended by a cross-section of industry figures, including product manufacturers, architects, engineers and small builders, as well as Anne Hemming, head of the buildings division at the ODPM, who wanted to hear what people had to say. Incredibly, there was a consensus among the delegates, and this led to the drafting of a five-point manifesto for change (see “Reform the Regs manifesto”, right).

The next significant moment was the departure of John Prescott and the metamorphosis of the ODPM into the DCLG. This was significant because it led to Angela Smith being appointed minister for Building Regulations, a role taken on previously by the overstretched housing minister, Yvette Cooper. Smith clearly wants to make her mark on the regulations as she announced DCLG was to host a round table to reform the Building Regulations and invited Building for an exclusive interview.

In the interview Smith said the government wanted to help the industry by giving it clearer and better information, which would lead to greater compliance – but there would be no dilution of standards. The round table, held on 27 June, was the first stage in the process and afterwards delegates spoke positively about the experience. The themes raised were strikingly similar to our own summit, including introducing regulations to a strict timetable with objectives set out up to 25 years in advance. Another idea was to dedicate regulations to building types rather than building elements.

The next stage will be to work these ideas into proposals that will be presented to ministers at the end of the year. Hopefully, 2007 will see the beginning of regulations that are easier to use, which would be a very happy ending for the campaign.