Building control officers may be given safety powers – unless scheme is scuppered by departmental shake-up.
Britain's 4000-strong army of building control officers could soon be drafted in to police site safety under plans being drawn up in Whitehall.

The proposal is that councils would receive delegated powers from the Health and Safety Executive to inspect contractors' sites – and take them to court for safety breaches. This would give a huge boost to the supervisory reach of the HSE: it currently has only 138 dedicated construction inspectors.

However, the move has been made problematic by the shake-up in departmental responsibilities that followed the resignation of transport secretary Stephen Byers. This has led to a review of who should take responsibility for the HSE. If the government decides to put the Building Regulations and safety under different ministries, officials warn it will be impossible to co-ordinate joint operations.

But if the review keeps the two together, action could be taken quickly. A deal has been agreed in principle between the HSE and the District Surveyors Association, the building control officers' body, that local authorities receive the powers, as long as they do not transfer them to private-sector approved inspectors.

David Crago, president of the association, said HSE staff would inspect the largest sites and building control officers would inspect smaller ones.

He added that although building control officers had only a limited amount of safety knowledge, they would receive training from the HSE.

He said: "Talks began in January and we have now reached agreement in principle. The details about exactly how the powers will work is still to be finalised."

Steve Wright, head of construction policy at the HSE, confirmed that talks had taken place and said he would be raising the issue at a RICS conference next month.

He warned that the move would not work if local authorities merely reported back to the HSE, as the executive's inspectors would be swamped by the information.

The proposals came under threat after the break-up of the DTLR two weeks ago. Building Regulations have moved to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister under 29-year-old parliamentary undersecretary Christopher Leslie.

The HSE has been handed to the Department of Transport, where it is likely to be overseen by either transport minister John Spellar or undersecretary David Jamieson.

As Building revealed last week, the government is reviewing where the HSE's long-term future should lie. One option is to keep it within transport, although some officials argue that the sponsorship of the rail industry in particular should be split from safety regulation. The other options are to move the HSE back to the Department of Work and Pensions, or to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

A Whitehall source said: "Unless safety comes to the ODPM, it makes joined-up government very difficult." The government is due to decide on the future home of the HSE by the end of July.