Any householder that wants to improve their property needs to be aware of their responsibilities with regard to building regulations. Being ignorant of them could lead to unnecessary costs and many other complications – like setting back the process of selling the property. While it is reasonable to assume that building professionals know what’s required, for householders a building project might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Council websites need to set out the process and what is involved, simply and clearly on the assumption that the website visitor may have little prior knowledge of the subject.
Shire districts, London boroughs, English and Welsh unitaries and Northern Ireland Districts. Please see separate report for Scottish unitaries.
This is the first time since Better Connected adopted a task-based approach to its surveys that we have looked at building control. 43% of sites are rated good or very good on this task, which shows there is considerable room for improvement. Poorly performing sites appear to have been put together by subject specialists assuming an expert audience and plunging into detail before answering essentials like ‘does my project need building control? The number of external sources linked to for information (Planning Portal, GOV.UK, LABC etc) means that people visiting council sites for this purpose will be exposed to a wide range of inconsistent content leading to some disjointed and confusing experiences.
Check ‘coverage’ to see if your council has been surveyed. Go to councils page and select your council. Look for link to task report under 2017-18 results
Provide a good or very good online service based on this survey
Better connected rankings
*Discrepancies in the figures are due to rounding off
This is the first review of 2016-17 that covers a large number of authorities and there are some general points on navigation worth noting before getting into specific points related to the building control task.
Reveiwers are seeing a big reduction in menus on content pages where a few years ago there would have been three column pages with menus and links on the left and right of the page. Sometimes these are now displayed beneath the page content, or they are not present at all.
Sites like these are certainly a lot less cluttered, and generally this is very welcome, provided that exploration of related content can still take place. Breadcrumb-style navigation links across the top of the page may be all that is needed to allow the user to navigate up the levels to the landing page where other related pages and a full overview of the content links can be accessed.
However, in some cases, (see Enfield.gov.uk) there are no navigation links on content pages at all, making it very difficult – if you land deep into the site as we do from Google - to see the range of content on the site related to a topic. The page we land on is effectively a dead end.
In other cases menus are relied on too heavily; for example, a planning landing page may only mention building control some way down a lengthy set of menu links related to planning. On other occasions, content pages immediately below the main building control landing page would contain links in submenus to other key information related to the topic that is not mentioned in the main content of the page (or on the landing page above) and could again be easily missed.
This particular review, on building control, was carried out from the perspective of the non-expert householder, looking for simple and complete information on their responsibilities for meeting regulations in connection with a typical project.
Finding this information was not always easy for two key reasons.
First, many sites seemed to assume familiarity with the building control system and processes, and certainly, these pages will be used extensively by architects, surveyors, and builders to check details and book inspections.
However, responsible householders will also need to inform themselves on the regulations, and for this audience (and to reduce avoidable calls to the council) the whole process, with key implications like fines and certificates, needs to be spelled out, and in a logical sequence.
Too many councils failed to explain things well, falling back on invitations for enquirers to call the council. Building control is a service where councils are in competition with the private sector so could this be driven by the idea that speaking to the applicant will secure the inspection business? In this day an age it is more likely to alienate busy people used to being able to used online services 24/7.
Linked to this, some councils providing no information on fees, leaving enquirers with no option other than to call the councils for a quote.
Second, instead of providing answers themselves to key questions (do I need building control? what happens if I don’t bother? What happens when?) many sites link to external sites for answers.
The problem is that there are many external sites in this space, including the Planning Portal, GOV.UK, and LABC. Creating a coherent customer journey starting from the council site and using text, video and pdf downloads from these other sites is not easy.
A few sites did this well, using different external sites – see our recommendations for examples – but many did not. The trick is linking to exactly the right content on the external site, not just a section, or worse, the home page.
Sites linking to the Planning Portal sometimes used https://www.planningportal.co.uk/info/200125/do_you_need_permission
- but this section gives priority to Planning so that users then have to navigate to Building Control. Other sites used
https://www.planningportal.co.uk/info/200187/your_responsibilities/38/building_regulations which is a better link, giving clear guidance as to when building regulations are needed. Information specific to our imagined householder can be found at https://www.planningportal.co.uk/info/200130/common_projects/17/extensions/3
Both GOV.UK and the Planning Portal link early on to a legislation website that is unwieldy.
Where external sites are used for information, the business of keeping the links up to date should not be under estimated. A further consideration is that the information on external sites is not always consistent, creating further uncertainly for the householder. Taking all this into account, councils might consider that creating their own building control pages might actually be a better solution.
The best sites set out a high level view of the process on a landing page. Some of these sites answered the majority of questions from this page. Councils that provide building control services through a partnership with other councils, as many do, sometimes fail to provide their own landing page with clear overview information and links. In all, only just over a third of sites were given a ‘yes’ answer to the question Is the whole process for building notice/ full plans from application to certification made clear?
Answers to other key questions for the householder were obscure on many sites, reinforcing the impression that pages were generally created without non-experts in mind.
These included Am I told on the council's web pages (without having to read through a pdf) that I may be fined or required pay to get the work re-done if non-compliant work is discovered (31% yes) and Am I told on the council's web pages (without having to read through a pdf) that the certificate is an important document if/when the property comes to be sold (39%).
If councils want to ensure that building regulations are complied with, surely these questions should be given more prominence? Even the question Am I told on the council's web pages (without having to read through a pdf) that the work will be inspected and a certificate given at the end of the process scored a yes on fewer than two thirds of sites.
Few councils are explicit about the value of an inspection certificate when selling the property or the implications of not having work certificated. Sometimes this is only implied in text about ‘regularisation’ notices but not from text included in guides to making an application for new work.
Nor are many explicit about what happens if inspections DON’T result in a satisfactory result. Information usually found about what happens if the application fails in some way but not about what happens if the final inspection finds problems and the applicant doesn’t fix it and ask for a further inspection. Enforcement was seldom explained.
On the rare occasion that content specified what would happen if building work was carried out without approval, sites appeared to disagree on what penalty the owner would face. Some said fines could be up to £5,000, others unlimited. Lewisham threatens a criminal record. Statements about putting the work right generally did not spell out at whose cost, but where they did it was usually suggested it would be at the owner’s expense but we also came across the odd site that suggested the contractor might be responsible.
The qualification in several of our questions that information needed to be found ‘without having to read through a pdf’ is important. There is less and less justification in making website users navigate and read information in (invariably) lengthy pdfs. Key, high-level information needs to be on webpages and to be kept concise. Detail can be in pdfs – as long as these are properly edited and not treated as dumping grounds. One other issue with pdfs encountered in this exercise was the amount of advertising adding to their bulk.
Structure the information provided to suit non-expert applicant questions. Explain the whole process. This rarely happens with omissions mostly around when to start work and how certificates are provided
Cover these issues:
List the main instances where building control is needed. Listing those where it is not needed always leaves doubt about instances not covered. Linking directly to the Planning Portal interactive house or the correct webpage on the LABC site is an alternative.
Be very clear about what approval inspections are needed - this is not always made apparent.
Prime space on key pages should not be taken up with wordy promotional copy
Do not land visitors on a partnership or other third party sites without explaining the hand off
Key information should not be consigned to pdfs or FAQ lists
Do not assume that site visitors will understand the term ‘regularisation’
See also the building standards report for Scotland.
Note: not all councils that receive the 'recommended' accolade appear in this list. We are trying to highlight a range of good practice from a range of council types. With larger surveys, we will select accordingly from what may be a larger list of recommended councils.
Bath & NE Somerset
I thought this was excellent - the information we were looking for was clearly spelled out, mostly on the applying for page - there were a few links on the right hand side that covered pretty much everything. The left menu looked long but had some very clear useful headings in it such as 'Inspecting work on site' that provided more depth to the summary pages I spent most of my time on. Link below is to a useful page about the stages of work for site inspection and what to expect.
Very easy to browse and to find the essential information. A logical and comprehensive service landing page. Easy to understand the options.
Link to Planning Portal interactive guide at the appropriate page. Essential information is available on the council site with appropriate links to external site. Accessible language and clear explanation of Building Control/Regulations.
Excellent use of the Planning Portal. The information is also easy to find in context on the council website. Overall an excellent site. Very easy to find all the essential information. Accessible language and appropriate content. Link below is to a well-written page explaining the process of making a payment and offering a link to the list of charges but also making it easy to contact the council if there is any doubt about the amount.
Very easy to navigate these pages. Language used is accessible and clear. Especially like the 'Those Alterations You Thought Never Needed Permission!!' section. Very user-friendly.
Very well done. Navigation and text on screens is accessible and appropriate. Clear explanation of the process of conforming to building regulations. Very helpful.
This site was exemplary in that almost all of the information we were looking for was found on the building control landing page content. There are only three webpages in the Building Control section but between them they covered everything and made the site quick to review.
Hinkley & Bosworth
Well-laid out webpages with comprehensive content. Easy to browse and to understand. Clear explanation of the process after application is submitted. Excellent.
Service landing page offering the essential tasks and information. A very good starting place. Gives links to the LABC website at https://www.labc.co.uk/your-building-project which has clear and informative detail about the process. Easier to browse and to understand than the LABC e-publications and uncluttered with advertising. Q10 general council number only Done well. Appropriate links to external sites including gov.uk.
The overview of the process on the page linked to below answers all of our questions and also gives a helpful explanation about the options for using council or approved inspectors. It contrasts with the hard sell other councils give of their services in lieu of useful information provision. 'It is now possible to use private companies to supervise building works. Although not always locally based, these companies are able to check plans and supervise site work in a similar way to councils. If the builder complies fully with the regulations, the inspector will provide a certificate, but if some of the work doesn't comply, the inspector will hand the job back to the council for further investigation.
Westminster is in direct competition with approved inspectors and strives to provide a better service at a lower cost to you. Costs and levels of service vary, so it is sensible to shop around in the same way you would when selecting a building contractor. You're not obliged to use an inspector that has been recommended to you.'
This was quick to review and without the content being lengthy almost all of our questions were answered. Well written, succinct information. Exemplary page linked to below provides excellent overview of the end to end process from application through inspections to completion certificates and their importance when selling the property.