A wake-up call that needs careful consideration

Lesley McLeod

Lesley McLeod, chief executive of the Association for Project Safety, gives her views on reports that the UK Government plans to end independent Scottish building regulations.

WHAT does it matter where the responsibility for building safety lies as long as the system of planning, engagement and enforcement is robust? 

On the face of it,  it should not matter at all. But the current proposals by the Westminster Government – both in the Single Market and the Building Safety Bills – suggest that, for London, the answer is that responsibility for building safety must rest with the individual – as long as control is in England. 

There is a superficial appeal in bringing everything under one roof so that, as a united nation, the UK is never again faced with another Grenfell. But Scotland had already made significant changes to fire safety regulations making a similar disaster already less likely here.

The Mother of Parliaments does not always know best.

North of the border our separate arrangements have long been in place – and working well. Many people already believe that, at the planning and consent stages, Scotland already has a more robust system. There are countless examples where the devolved nations have led the way. These range from the assurances and controls needed before any major work can commence to the everyday workings of the inspection regime. They include things like the mandatory installation of carbon monoxide alarms in new properties or when major works are undertaken – something brought in in Northern Ireland and Scotland but where England lagged behind.

Oversight and enforcement are things the construction sector wants. I hear it time and again. But people are not clamouring for a new and wholly nationalised system – such as seems the intent behind the proposed new building safety regulator. They want more toe-capped boots on the ground and a less stretched and properly funded operation at local level. Enforcement is currently spread too thin – whether the HSE or building control in Edinburgh or Inverness. And that brings risk.

I am less sure than some of the more conspiratorial of nationalists in any of the devolved administrations believe that we face a land grab. That may be the effect – but I am less sure it is the intent. Simply expedience – even laziness – may be just as likely. But we all know cutting corners is a potential cause of many of construction’s problems and the accidents and fatalities that result. And I believe this potential confusion of powers and responsibilities has the potential to make matters worse. 

In my view there is a failure of understanding – and a London-centric bias in policy making – that repeatedly seems to forget devolution even exists far less that our United Kingdom never meant a single legislature across the board. Scotland’s laws and her local government boundaries – both geographical and in scope – are defined differently than those in England. To override this – especially at a time when the calls for independence seem much louder – may make building control clearer and easier to follow in England but it does nothing to strengthen the system elsewhere and risks introducing muddle where a safer regime is already in place.