Breaches in Building Regulations
To consider a report concerning breaches in building regulations, as agreed by the Scrutiny Committee in June 2018. This follows the publication of the Hackitt Review into the Grenfell Tower fire which made a series of recommendations to the sector.
The Housing Panel considered a report from the Head of Regulatory Services and Community Safety on Building Control enforcement.
The Building Control Team Leader provided an overview of the various aspects of the Building Regulations, which provide minimum standards for design, construction and alterations to buildings. He said the Council’s Building Control team was not primarily driven by enforcement, which would rarely meet the public interest test due to the low levels of fines and costs awarded by the courts. Instead, compliance was encouraged through informal negotiation and the Council used an ‘escalator’ approach when contraventions were identified. Building Control could identify unauthorised developments in a number of ways and would seek to ensure compliance through a retrospective approval process known as regularisation.
The Panel explored the interactions between local authority building control functions and Approved Inspectors (AIs), which were originally introduced for residential building work in 1985 and whose role was significantly expanded in 2013. Local authority building control teams had to compete for work with private sector AIs but remained the only agencies that could take enforcement action. The Panel noted that AIs would undercut local authorities by providing the building control service for rock bottom prices, which raised concerns about their diligence. Where an AI provided the service they had to submit an initial notice to the Council but, once approved, the Council had no powers to inspect their work unless it was formally reverted back to the Council for enforcement. Such reversions were rare and the bodies responsible for ‘marking their own homework’ had little incentive to find fault with their work. It was hoped and expected that the Hackitt Review into the Grenfell Tower fire would help to drive up standards and improve accountability within this sector.
The Building Control Team Leader assured the Panel that the Council’s Building Control team did what it could within the law to ensure high standards, citing an example of the Council standing its ground in a pressurised situation in the hours before the Westgate Shopping Centre was due to open. The service had also been audited in the last couple of years and no major issues had been identified.
The Building Control Team Leader explained that as a consequence of the competitive market that existed, the Council’s in-house Building Control team would not necessarily be selected to provide the building control function for Council-led development projects. This would have benefit of providing stronger quality control and keeping finance within the Council. Consideration could be given to whether it would be possible to address this through procurement.
In view of reported issues with defects (“snagging”) at new build developments outside the city and skills shortages in the construction sector, the Panel considered how the Council could ensure that its new build social housing was delivered to the highest standards by third parties. The Panel heard that Building Control Surveyors took a risk-based approach to sampling and inspecting the work of contractors but were focused on ensuring minimum standards. The building control process alone therefore could not be relied upon to deliver the higher standards the Council would expect. It was suggested that employing a Clerk of Works was one way for the Council as the client to exert its influence during the construction phase to ensure quality of delivery. Another approach might be to undertake a full condition survey.
It was noted that the Council’s Building Control service, in common with the wider Local Government Building Control sector, was stretched due to difficulties recruiting and retaining Building Control Surveyors. This was largely due to demographic challenges and competition from the private sector. Due to these staffing challenges officers were exploring the option of entering into a working agreement with another local district council, in order to improve resilience and provide for a more robust service on a larger scale. In response to a question the Panel heard that one Building Control Apprentice has been successfully promoted to an Assistant Building Control Surveyor role. The Building Control Team Leader said that he was keen to take on a second apprentice and wanted to ensure that good quality training and support could be provided from within the team. The Panel suggested that training building control apprentices locally by using permanent staff should remain a priority regardless of other solutions that may be used to address the staffing issues.
The Panel thanked the attendees and noted that there may be merit in revisiting this topic once the recommendations of the Hackitt Review had been implemented. The Panel agreed to submit 2 recommendations to the City Executive Board on 10 April 2019:
1. That consideration is given to how to ensure that high quality delivery and best value will be secured when the Council (or its housing company) will be taking ownership of multiple new build properties, for example by employing or insisting on the employment of a Clerk of Works to oversee the quality and safety of the building work.
2. That the Council continues to prioritise the successful practice of employing and training apprentices within the Building Control Service, giving particular emphasis to the need to ensure that an appropriate level of training and mentoring is provided by permanent staff.