Out-Law News 2 min. read

Expert calls for 'culture change' around Scottish building standards

Enforcement of and compliance with the Scottish building standards system requires a "culture change" rather than a fundamental overhaul following on from the fire at Grenfell Tower, according to a new report.

A review (34-page / 552KB PDF) commissioned by the Scottish government, and chaired by Professor John Cole, has made a number of recommendations to "reshape" the current system, some of which could have significant implications for the construction industry, according to health and safety law expert Katherine Metcalfe of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com.

The recommendations of the review are based on a shift away from checking compliance of design intent towards checking compliance of the actual construction of buildings, with a greater onus on owners and developers to demonstrate and document compliance. The report also recommends better training for, and additional investment in, building standards staff; stronger engagement with the Scottish fire authority, particularly at completion before occupation or use; and more and better data sharing between contractors and verifiers.

The report also recommends the introduction of a 'Certification of Compliance' scheme, requiring independent sign-off of a building's compliance with the building regulations from an appropriately qualified, independent professional. It also raises the possibility of licensing contractors as competent to carry out specific categories and sizes of work as a "somewhat longer-term objective", drawing on the experience of recent changes to the building standards system in Ireland.

The additional work required of building standards officials should the recommendations be implemented should be paid for by increasing the fees for building warrants, according to the report. It also recommends increased legal penalties for non-compliance, "in order to act as a true disincentive to building owners and developers who fail to take the necessary steps".

The recommendations will now be considered by the Scottish government, ahead of an anticipated consultation paper seeking views on potential reform from the construction industry, local authorities and the public.

"Perhaps unsurprisingly, Professor Cole has identified in Scotland many of the same problems which Dame Judith Hackitt would like to see addressed in England and Wales," said Metcalfe, referring to the independent review of building standards commissioned by the UK government following the Grenfell Tower fire.

"Tackling these will require greater investment in Scotland's local authority building standards departments, and a shift in their focus to place greater emphasis on the quality of buildings being constructed. The resource implications for the construction industry if the recommendations are implemented will also be significant. Fees for building warrants will increase. Investment will be required in verification during construction and to implement systems to create a digital record which demonstrates compliance," she said.

"Professor Cole appears to go further than Dame Hackitt in recommending the licensing of contractors for large, high risk and complex buildings. However, licensing of industry is a reserved matter, requiring the Scottish government to work collaboratively with the UK government to develop a common system in the longer term," she said.

Professor Cole's review of enforcement and compliance is one of two reviews into the Scottish building standards system, commissioned by the Scottish government in September 2017. The second review, dealing explicitly with the fire safety aspects of the Scottish building regulations and Technical Handbooks, was chaired by Dr Paul Stollard and was published last week.

The report concludes that compliance and enforcement with Scottish building standards is "not broken", but that there is "a need to strengthen compliance both in relation to statutory procedural requirements and in addressing non-compliant work on site". It also concludes that enforcement, where non-compliance is observed, needs to be "more strongly implemented" by local authorities.

"A properly functioning building standards system that is efficient in its operation as well as upholding standards that are fit for purpose is ... of vital importance to the development of Scotland's towns, cities and rural areas, and for the safety of its people," Professor Cole said in the report. "A proper understanding and implementation of the roles and responsibilities of verifiers and developers are key to delivering a properly functioning system."

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