You Shall Not (Get A Free) Pass

(This article was written in October 2016).

Reports of dodgy building practices on a development in Albany have some calling into question the recent Rules Reduction Taskforce report’s suggestion that New Zealand should work towards builder self-certification. If that was all the report said, such criticisms might be fair, but actually our headline recommendation in this area was: Get serious about lifting the skills of the building sector.

For all the serious Albany-type development problems we experience, the vast majority of the around 19,000 building consents issued in Auckland last year resulted in good things being built.

However only around one third of builders are part of either the two industry associations. As the Auditor General found in her April 2015 report on Auckland Council’s building consents processes, 70% of building consent applications fail at the first hurdle. Council needs to continue to do more to help the industry navigate its, at times, slow and non-responsive systems. But this embarrassing result is mainly a call for action for the industry to lift its game in partnership with its regulators: central and local government.

Submitters repeatedly told us of the additional costs, frustrations and delays that councils impose – much of this coming from the understandably risk averse nature of councils stemming from the leaky homes fiasco. However as long as councils remain in charge of consenting, this seems unlikely to change.

The Taskforce concluded that it seemed sensible to develop a long term strategy for the building sector to carry responsibility for its own work. Queensland in Australia, with a population the same size as New Zealand, has done its own version of this with a self-insurance scheme.

But our report made it clear that “upskilling the industry is a critical first step”, and builders must reach the level of skills required for self-certification.

In New Zealand, plumbers, gas-fitters and electricians have been able to self-certify their work for years. If we can achieve this in some sectors, what do we need to do to achieve this in others?

The challenge for governments and councils is to strike the right balance between the vast majority of builders and developers who work within the rules, but who too often have to battle council and sometimes government processes to achieve this, and the minority of “cowboys” who let the industry down.

We spoke about cowboys in our report too. The License Building Practitioners (LDP) scheme introduced in 2007 to improve builder quality has had an uneven effect. Our best builders are frustrated by the bureaucracy of it, and yet we heard that some cowboys have been able to get licensed under it.

When we look at the looming housing shortages in Auckland and the fact it can take months to get building consents, it’s sensible to look at steps to allow well qualified builders to be more effective.

As I travelled around Auckland as part of the Taskforce, we heard time and again from both mum and dad property owners as well as larger scale developers that the attitude our council takes at the consenting stage can be a real barrier to getting building done.

Some of this attitude comes from government imposed rules, and so we saw opportunities to define more clearly what is meant by the Building Act 2004 term “as nearly as is reasonably practicable”. At times this is being interpreted as do everything possible.

Yet unlike the Resource Management, which was submitters greatest source of complaints, councils control a lot of the way the Building Act is implemented.

They need to make it easier for good builders to get more done by using progressive building consents so work can begin sooner, with non-structural details confirmed later. Councils also needs to move towards risk-based consenting, in which the degree of council plan review and inspection better matches the risk and complexity of the building work.

But for those worried that this sounds like endorsing the poor practices in Albany, it’s not. We need our building industry to walk and chew gum at the same time – and the leading builders have been doing this for a long time. Implementing both a higher standard of skill within the industry together with improve council and government building processes would achieve this.

Under this system, there’d be no free passes, fewer cowboys and more, better built buildings.


Mark was member of the government’s Rules Reduction Taskforce.

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