Now there’s no excuse to plead ignorance or lack of resources for failing to comply with regulations – self-accreditation schemes are emerging that will put the onus on the industry. Karen Fletcher reports on the latest moves to make you do it yourself

Building research body BRE estimates that up to one-third of all Building Regulations are never complied with because of ignorance, deliberate evasion or lack of resources for inspection and enforcement at local authorities. Which is why the government has started to look beyond building control to the industry itself to help achieve greater compliance.

Self certification, whereby accredited companies are able to bypass building control and certify their own work, is set to form an increasing part of the government’s strategy for upping the rate of compliance with the Building Regulations. In 2002, it introduced the first self-certification initiatives, known as competent persons schemes (CPSs), through trade bodies (see “What is a competent persons scheme?” on page 50 for the areas covered). The Glass and Glazing Federation was the first organisation to get the CPS ball rolling with its Fenestration Self-Assessment Scheme. All replacement glazing in homes comes within the scope of the Building Regulations and has to comply with new thermal performance standards. FENSA set about establishing a scheme to serve both homeowners and installers via its website.

More recently, the electrical sector has been grappling with various schemes since the revisions to Part P of the Building Regulations were published in April 2005. The safety implications of electrical work made this element high profile and controversial, but the upshot is that 27,000 firms are now certified under various CPSs for Part P work.

However, it is fair to say that the programme for the latest round of CPSs got off to a pretty incompetent start earlier this year. When the latest revisions to Part L, F and P of the Building Regulations came into force in April 2006, the scope of these schemes was extended to cover areas such as ventilation and air-conditioning, air pressure testing and CO2 emission rate calculations (for a full list, see “Areas of work covered”, page 51). But the new self-certification schemes were not up and running, as scheme operators were left waiting for their letter of authorisation, which had been due at the end of 2005.

This was extremely serious for trades such as plumbing, heating and air-conditioning contractors, that had never had to notify works to local authority building control in the past, and so had little idea how to go about it. However, it was potentially far more serious for the government, which risked seeing its much-heralded new energy saving targets – now enshrined in revisions to the regulations – totally ignored. There have now been some schemes set up for Part L, but these have been less enthusiastically received than the other CPSs, which may reflect the fact that the construction industry hasn’t yet felt the full effects of Part L on building design or construction.

Trade associations in the new areas affected are at least in the fortunate position of being able to draw on the experience of the electrical sector, and all agree that self certification is the most effective way to ensure Building Regulations are adhered to. After all, it is not just the government that will benefit. The increased scrutiny created by new Building Regulations should make it more difficult for unregistered firms with poorly trained staff to work in a sector that is now subject to local authority control, albeit by a third-party route. Furthermore, members of an accredited CPS will not only meet the requirements of the regulations, they will also be able to do so cheaply because the schemes offer simplified methods of notification. This should allow them to compete more effectively with the so-called “cowboys” who tend to undercut them on price by avoiding the extra costs associated with registration and accreditation.

For example, the National Association for Professional Inspectors and Testers (NAPIT) says notification via its online system costs just £1.50 plus VAT, with another 70p for an insurance-backed warranty for each job. This compares with fees as high as £750 reported by one contractor, who recently used the “traditional” route of applying for a building notice and then following the inspection process directly with his local authority. There is an annual CPS membership fee of about £300 – depending on which organisation you go with – plus the applicant needs to subject their business to in-depth scrutiny from the scheme administrator.

The schemes for the domestic sector are also underpinning the Trustmark initiative launched by the government this year in another attempt to eliminate cowboy traders. Making notification cheap and easy will obviously help, as it will reduce the financial incentive for a homeowner to go with the cash-in-hand lowest quote.

Self certification is set to form an increasing part of the government’s strategy for upping the rate of compliance with the regs

The advent of Home Information Packs next year is also seen as another area to strengthen the CPS system, as homeowners will need to include the certificates provided by contractors in their packs when they come to sell their homes. There is currently some confusion about this thanks to yet another government U-turn, but the HIP will become compulsory next June in one form or another.

CPS is in its early stages, which means that there is a certain amount of jostling for position in the market. A large number of organisations have spotted the potential in CPSs and so have dashed to set them up. This threatens to create confusion and resentment in the market at the apparent duplication. Contractors were quick to complain that they were being asked to join multiple schemes.

A number of people think that offering a one-stop-shop CPS is the solution.

“Many businesses operate across several disciplines that are affected by the new notification requirements,” says John Andrews, NAPIT chief executive. “We need to make things as simple as possible for contractors and the general public. For Part P alone, there are 10 different CPS across seven separate organisations, which just creates confusion. Contractors don’t separate their work out in this way – they see it all as one job.” This is why NAPIT is seeking to expand its scheme for Part P beyond the current 3000 members to heating, ventilation, plumbing and air-conditioning companies.

Bill Belshaw, chairman of Building Engineering Services Competence Accreditation shares this concern, but believes the system will naturally settle down into the appropriate number of schemes: “I worry that there may be too many and hope to see some rationalisation in the coming months to avoid accusations of profiteering,” he says. “No compliance system is likely to be perfect, but CPS is certainly the best we have and I feel confident that this will lead to wider compliance with the regulations than we have seen in the past.”

BESCA has a remit that covers both the domestic and commercial fields with specific reference to oil-fired and solid fuel boilers as well as gas heating, hot water, mechanical ventilation and air conditioning systems. Notification through BESCA costs £1.25 and this includes five pieces of building services plant. The scheme run by gas safety watchdog CORGI is obviously focused on domestic gas work, but it also has a remit to certify electrical, plumbing and ventilation work.

Unless your work falls under Part P of the Building Regulations, its unlikely that you will have been affected by CPS – so far. In the wider building services sector, there is still widespread ignorance about the new requirements and it is no secret that many firms continue to operate outside the law by failing to notify local authority building control.

However, the government is very keen to drive the principle of CPS forward, since it puts the onus back onto industry to keep its own house in order. However, these schemes also offer honest firms the opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to quality work which the cowboy firms don’t offer. Ultimately, it will be contractors themselves who make self-certification work.