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Comment by Christian Hale, Managing Director of Hale

How can Building Control expect to improve standards and apply regulation if they have no legal accountability? They simply advise and assist their client to meet the standard, so is the process even worthwhile? Where can the industry innovate to improve standards?

Since privatisation in 1997, I’ve noticed gradual changes in the Building Control process and service. Now I’m witnessing issues with increasing frequency and levels of frustration.

At Hale, we engage with Building Control Bodies (BCBs) at all stages, not simply to tick a box but to add value for clients and fulfil our mission to build lasting quality, ensuring the wellbeing of our end users. A goal which, I believe, the whole construction industry should share.

However, the process for enforcing regulations means that this goal has shifted. A toothless system is only driving innovation to find more cunning ways to ‘get round’ regulation, with some viewing them as a guide to be manipulated for their own benefit.

Recent misgivings

The industry is still reeling from the Grenfell disaster, but, as the inquiry continues, we still aren’t any further forward. The situation highlighted this very issue of accountability, but why is all the attention only on high-rise buildings? It affects every building.

In theory, Building Control should be a simple procedure – BCBs approve detailed drawings, then site visits confirm the build matches the drawings. However, we’re witnessing tremendous levels of disparity between BCBs and their inspectors: some are much more lenient, there’s substantial variation in interpretation, and limited site visits. We’ve requested site inspections to check progress, or revised drawings from on-site mitigation work, but the BCB has refused to visit because it was out of their allotted spend.

Privatisation creating too much commercial choice and manipulation

Since privatisation, the market has grown significantly, leading to extensive competition, which typically drives innovation and efficiency. However, being able to choose a BCB has wider ramifications, as president of the London District Surveyors Association (LDSA) detailed to the Hackitt review, in 2018:

“It becomes extremely easy for the ‘regulated person’ to apply financial and commercial pressure to the person who is supposed to be upholding the standards. No other sphere of activity is regulated in this way…I don’t think anyone would countenance a restaurant employing their own food hygiene inspector.”

I appreciate as commercial enterprises BCBs have to perform as efficiently as they can to keep afloat and make a profit – but they must uphold standards. As they don’t have ultimate responsibility for the end results, it appears profit margins are more important, leaving the building owner at risk, despite having paid for and gained Building Control approval.

I’ve experienced BCBs offering discounted work to secure further contracts. I even have anecdotal evidence of inspectors certifying sub-standard works in a quid pro quo situation to guarantee future income.

In one dramatic example, Hale took over a project (following insolvency of the previous contractor) with Building Control certified shell and core, but there were major defects in the structure. We worked closely with architects, structural engineers and a BCB to remedy and ensure a safe build for the client, but they had to invest extra money to do so. The client should never have been in such a risky position.

 A radical rethink

As Dame Judith Hackitt identified in her review, if you set minimum standards, they may well be the maximum you ever get:

“Some of those who construct buildings treat the minimum standards in the Approved Documents as a high bar to be negotiated down, rather than genuinely owning the principles of a safe building and meeting the outcomes set out in regulations…There is a need for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works.”

Solving this issue demands a complex and long-term process, but I believe there are some actions which will help: collaboration, regulation and mandatory obligation.

Current options not quite cutting it

Build Warranty programmes, like NHBC, seem to work well. It is recognised countrywide and provides warranties for 80% of new homes. But do warranty schemes offer sufficient cover?

Apart from being a mortgage pre-requisite, they’re all voluntary schemes. Costs can alienate many private construction projects, so they fail in their aim to drive up quality across the industry. And without universal standards, other warranty providers are racing to the bottom to provide the least amount of cover, making the paper it’s printed on the only enduring element of the agreement.

Extending Building Control approval to provide an NHBC style warranty, with high standards of minimum requirements, could be the most efficient, fair and serviceable solution for all. BCBs will then perform a key role in driving up standards across the industry, driven by the demands of warranty underwriters.

The process, including warranties, will be more expensive for the client, but the finished product will be of a higher standard with guarantees for building owners and occupants long into the future. By encompassing a warranty system, relationships between builders and the providers will have to be closer and more collaborative – encouraging innovation from all parties to meet the goal of high-quality and enduring buildings.

Buildings will last longer, be more efficient and have reduced lifetime costs. Standards of warranty cover would increase through regulation, and competition will then drive efficiency to make it more cost-effective.

A tiered scheme like BREEAM could go even further to incentivise higher standards and improve the entire construction industry. Higher ratings would garner higher confidence, assurances, and ultimately, higher resale prices and profits.

Building Control needs improving, but better accountability is possible. The change will demand careful consideration, time, resource and expertise from all areas of the building community. Meanwhile, I’ll continue striving for the highest standards with my team at Hale, working closely and collaboratively with the client team, architects, and developers. At Hale, we build lasting quality, constructing homes we’re proud of, that the owner can enjoy for generations.