Paul Wilkins says the Government is failing the private sector on building regulation reform.
The tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire has, rightly, brought about a desire to reform the UK’s building industry, with the Government announcing an independent review of building regulations in the weeks after the fire.
One of the recommendations that has been put forward an accepted by the Government is to restrict the role of the private sector to inspect high-rise buildings, handing more power to local authorities. This is despite the fact that it was local authority inspectors who inspected Grenfell Tower 16 times.
Moreover, the tragedy, and the wider issue of combustible cladding being installed on buildings, was the result of a failure of legislation and guidance to keep up with technology; misleading marketing of materials and contractors swapping products out for cheaper ones during construction.
Private building inspectors were not to blame for Grenfell and yet the Government has accepted proposals to effectively restrict our role in the industry while handing more power and responsibility to local authorities who, according to polling of 2,000 UK adults undertaken by ComRes in November 2018, have lost public confidence since the fire.
The introduction of private inspectors, or “Approved Inspectors”, itself was a response to a building control regime that had developed over the years from a hodgepodge of local bylaws into a slow, bureaucratic and monopolistic local authority system.
After decades of underinvestment and neglect in the UK’s publicly run building inspection regime, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government began to introduce competition into the sector. The chronic underfunding and local authority bureaucracy had become a signficiant drag on the UK’s ability to build the houses it needed.
In June 1979 the then Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine signalled his intentions when he said, “I am looking at this because I am determined that the construction of housing and of all other buildings shall be freed of petty, unnecessary and bureaucratic restrictions.”
The new system created competition and imposed rigorous standards on private building inspectors that, to this day, surpass the level of competence that is required of public sector building control. Approved Inspectors are audited by an independent regulator, must demonstrate competence and hold specialised insurance which does not apply to local authorities. There is currently no similar framework for local authority building control inspectors.
Over the years this competition has driven up standards for clients, driven up the level of skills and competence within the sector and delivered what privatisation set out to achieve.
This is something we should be proud of and celebrate, but the advances that have been made are now at risk of being abandoned.
Today, even the Welsh Labour Government have rejected these proposals, highlighting the additional requirements of Approved Inspectors that are not replicated in the local authority system. We now find ourselves with a strange paradigm where a Conservative UK Government is side-lining the private sector while a socialist Government in Wales is recognising its benefits.
The private sector has delivered choice and competition and driven up standards. This should be celebrated by the Government.