Thursday, April 27, 2006

Editorial: Licensing builders is first step

There can be little quibble with the thrust of the Government's new builder licensing scheme, which aims to recognise skilled builders and increase consumer protection. If the likes of drain layers, plumbers and gasfitters have to demonstrate that they meet national standards, why not builders? The leaky buildings crisis has caused many people to lose confidence in the sector, and licensing will help to rekindle faith. But it is only a small step, and one that will have little resonance if the scheme proves insufficiently robust, or if other strands of the systemic problem identified by the 2002 Hunn Report are not tackled.

The licensing scheme seeks to strike a balance between recognising skill and providing scope for, and the protection of, the do-it-yourself culture. Builders will need to be licensed to carry out "significant" construction. This is deemed to encompass new buildings, a change of building use - for example, converting a house into flats - and major alterations and extensions. The question is whether that definition is strict enough to bar those not up to the task (Building Issues Minister Clayton Cosgrove's "cowboys"). And whether there are loopholes in the scheme, or shortcomings in scrutiny, that will mean the days of such practitioners, and the construction of unsound houses, are by no means numbered.

In fundamental terms, the licensing of builders represents a reversal of the light-handed regulatory regime that permeated building controls throughout the 1990s. Then, a less prescriptive building code coincided with the arrival of new building techniques, permission for the use of untreated timber, and greater activity by developers. The upshot, to the cost of thousands of leaky-home owners, was what Government-appointed investigator Don Hunn described as a "major crisis".

The full extent of the problem is yet to unfold. But even now, four years after the Hunn Report, there has been no cogent or concerted response. First, there was a state of denial. Now, there is buck passing and frantic attempts to limit liability. For the home owners, misery has been heaped upon misfortune. At the moment, for example, some cannot get building code compliance certificates on their new homes because local councils fear potential legal repercussions. The lack of this final sign-off creates major problems for the sale of these houses.

Equally, the vehicle intended to examine and assess the plight of individual homeowners and provide redress, the Weathertight Resolution Service, has proved a major disappointment. Currently, if belatedly, it is being reviewed. While this is going on, its operations appear to have succumbed to some type of malaise. Only when changes make the process faster, more efficient and more cost-effective for home owners will progress be made.

The outcome of the resolution service review is keenly anticipated. In the meantime, the Government was clearly keen to trumpet the new licensing scheme. It was happy also to link builders' shortcomings to the leaky building crisis. But these were only one of a plethora of contributory problems. People should not, as Mr Cosgrove suggests, be able to strap on a toolbelt and call themselves builders. But licensing is far from the total solution. It is merely the most easily addressed of the problems.

The Hunn Report detailed a rational response to the leaky buildings crisis. Too few of its recommendations have been acted upon. The Government may not have been responsible for the regime that precipitated the present woes, but it has been too slow to address both the failings and the consequences. We should not have to wait years before further steps are taken.

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