Lancaster City Council approved their annual budget at a meeting on 26th February, with the 'Co-operative Alliance' of Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats voting in favour. The opposition Conservatives, Morecambe Bay Independents, and other independents voted against the budget.
Among the proposals was to bring the City Council's Building Control service back in-house, which is extremely timely as public scrutiny of the existing regulatory system continues to escalate in the light of major incidents such as the Grenfell Tower fire and the Bolton fire. Building Control services to be offered by the Council include dangerous buildings call-outs, enforcement of building regulations, and a plan-checking and site inspections service.
Before 1965, the design and regulation of buildings in the UK was dealt with by local bye-laws. In 1965 the first set of national Building Regulations were brought in, and these have been updated on multiple occasions. The current Building Regulations in force are from 2010, while the Building Act 1984 provides the rules that state how Building Control should be carried out.
According to a document prepared for the Council, they currently have one building control officer on the staff. Attempts to recruit vacant positions over the last three years have resulted in no qualified candidates. The intention is for the City Council to have at least a 40% market share of Building Control after the first 18 months, generating additional income to help the Council balance its budget after the last decade's massive cuts in government funding to local authorities.
In March 2016, the City Council awarded a three-year contract worth £219,000 for 'building control services' to Urban Vision. Urban Vision was a joint venture set up in 2005 between Salford City Council, Capita, and Galliford Try. Capita held a 50.1% stake in the venture. In May 2018, Salford Star reported that Salford City Council were going to end their relationship with Urban Vision after accusations they had been profiteering off public works. Urban Vision provided services for over 230 local authorities, including Lancaster.
A temporary agreement was arranged directly between Capita and Lancaster City Council until October 2020. On their website, Capita say their Building Control service 'is designed for local authorities who need immediate solutions and a flexible service, which can be switched on and off as required.' Capita has been criticised for mishandling public sector contracts to the extent it is nicknamed 'Crapita' by Private Eye. For instance, The Guardian reported in 2016 how Capita and Asos had been paid over £500 million by the DWP to carry out 'fitness to work assessments', 61% had been overturned on appeal.
The existing system of Building Control has been roundly criticised in the UK, especially following the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017. Part of the problem relates to who is authorised to carry out Building Control, as it is not just local authorities. Since 1984, private companies can become 'Approved Inspectors' (AIs) and are monitored by the Construction Industry Council (CIC) rather than by democratically-elected councillors on local authorities. The Hackitt Review, which reported in 2018, pointed out that 'there are incentives for building control competitors to attract business by offering minimal interventions or supportive interpretations to contractors', on top of a number of other concerns with the existing system of AIs.
An example in Lancaster is Caton Court, where the developers, Hines, employed an AI rather than the City Council. Ultimately, there were a number of failures in the construction of Caton Court, particularly relating to fire safety, which led to an enforcement notice from the Fire and Rescue Service on 22nd October 2019. The AI employed by Hines was Bureau Veritas Building Control. All Bureau Veritas had to do was provide an 'initial notice' to the City Council, after which point the plan checking and site inspections were entirely in their hands. Information about private building inspections is never passed onto the local council or released into the public domain.
Formerly known as HCD Building Control, Bureau Veritas has been criticised for approving buildings with Grenfell-style combustible cladding. In 2017, the BBC reported they had approved a combustible student tower block in Newcastle. In 2019, an investigation by Inside Housing revealed they had approved six buildings with Grenfell-style cladding.
It is clear that a move to bring Building Control in Lancaster back into the realm of accountability can only improve the quality of major construction projects that take place in the city. The decision is likely to preempt national legislative changes to the system, and therefore will put the City Council in a much more comfortable position if and when top-down changes to Building Regulations are brought in.