Andrew Carpenter tells PBC Today why the Devon Building Control Partnership venture has been so successful and explains the challenges facing the profession
The Devon Building Control Partnership (DBCP) launched in 2004, resulting from the merger of Building Control services from three councils – South Hams District Council, Teignbridge District Council and West Devon Borough Council – into one overall Building Control service for an area of around 1,050 sq miles. One of the first of its kind, the DBCP is now an established presence and PBC Today caught up with Andrew Carpenter, Head of Partnership at DBCP to examine the journey.
How did the merger of services come about?
Interestingly, the idea of the merger was driven by the Building Control teams and managers themselves and not the Councils. We were convinced of the benefits that would improve the efficiency of the services provided through making better use of our resources. We knew that by joining forces we could still deliver the same level of service, but with fewer people.
At that time, we had a few senior surveyors and managers who were coming up for retirement over the next few years. It made sense to merge services to avoid a shortfall in key positions and reduce to only one Head of Service. The increasing competition from the private sector also helped drive a need to maintain a level of service despite future staff reductions.
When local authority cutbacks and efficiency drives began in earnest around 2008, we managed to ride the storm as we were already incredibly efficient.
On the practical side, as surveyors, we all saw the obvious benefits of the merger as it would iron out the boundaries. Instead of having three Councils with their own boundaries, the merger meant those imaginary lines disappeared.
We are now essentially a large Building Control unit covering a massive area but treated as one council. If you compare our area to the size of London, we would stretch beyond the M25, but large parts of it are very rural, and this requires an efficient way to cover it.
Our financial efficiency was the result of cutting internal support costs. We saved a lot through eliminating duplication. We don’t have three lots of IT, HR or finance, and that means our value for money gets better.
What services can you offer?
We offer the full Building Control service as required by the Building Act which includes plan approval, site inspection, regularisation, enforcement, dangerous buildings, demolitions, safety at sports grounds, fire safety, energy advice and access audits, etc.
We provide free pre-application consultations, online submission/notifications, telephone submissions, and we also work with LABC Warranty on new house building – it’s a complete service including any of the bolt-on type services that people are looking for.
Sometimes we might not necessarily have the skills in-house, so for those, we approach LABC Consult who can provide it on a national basis.
An important aspect of our service is that we are non-profit making. It’s legally required and even written into our partnership agreement. All the income we take is used to support and provide our service and re-invest in it. This is evidenced in the 18 surveyors, many of whom work remotely around large parts of Devon enabling them to cover anywhere at short notice.
What benefits have you seen so far regarding cost savings?
We’ve seen many savings as a result of the merger including the centralised hosting of the partnership by Teignbridge Council with the resulting lower support costs and the reduced need for the replacement of staff. The cash we’ve saved has been invested back into training and developing current staff.
We’ve also seen huge benefits from the development of our centralised tech support team who have enabled greater efficiency by dealing with many queries at the first point of contact.
What other benefits have you seen from the shared services you provide?
Our customers work all over Devon, but so do we, so we’ve built close relationships with them enabling the same surveyor to work with the same client for all their projects. Our customers appreciate our client managing service as our surveyors are on hand whenever required.
This service means that we can discuss projects at the earliest of stages with our customers. We can advise on all aspects of any project, potentially saving clients from any aborted work! We also get input into designs, advising clients based on experience and helping to arrive at the most economical solutions as well as ensuring they comply with requirements.
Our remote working system was introduced to enable our surveyors to meet client needs across our wide geographical area. Many surveyors would’ve had to commute for up to an hour to work at our central office in Newton Abbot, but this tiresome aspect has been avoided with remote systems that allow for complete access online. Living in the same area where they work means they are more efficient as they can go straight to sites. It cuts our costs, has increased efficiency, and kept our surveyors very happy.
The tech support team I mentioned previously are a huge benefit. We have a team of six who are all qualified Technicians in the Chartered Association of Building Engineers (CABE), so they possess a great deal of technical knowledge in addition to administration support, which is a huge benefit.
A good example of success is the introduction of telephone applications by the team in 2013. This involves simply taking the details and payment over the phone as opposed to the old-fashioned way of sending out forms for people to fill in and return, saving everyone time and further reducing the use of paper.
The team are the first point of contact for anyone requiring our services, and they can deal with the majority of matters, passing only the more complex technical issues to surveyors, and this leaves them free to deal with our clients providing more value for money.
The development of our tech support team is something we are immensely proud of. Our support managers worked with LABC to develop a training and examination programme that was accepted by the CABE (Chartered Association of Building Engineers.
As a result, there are now local authorities around the country getting qualified technicians in their teams. Having gone through training and qualification, there’s consistency and quality around the country in providing support for local authority building control – inevitably benefitting customers.
One of the things we realised at the beginning of our partnership was that we needed our own identity. It was important we retained the local authority identity connection, but we didn’t want to appear completely independent like an Approved Inspector – we are still a Council service after all. So we designed our logo and name, establishing a well-recognised and respected branding in our region.
We have our own website – not just pages within a council website. This is in the process of a redesign with the launch likely in August. It will be different to what we have now but still separate and dedicated for us. It will have a commercial appearance different to standard council websites, designed to meet the customer’s needs and provide them with fast and efficient access to our services. We are very excited about the launch.
What does the future hold for the partnership and Building Control as a profession?
I think Building Control in itself is in a strong position. We have ongoing competition, which is generally healthy but there is also a risk of it driving standards down. We are keen to make sure that doesn’t happen, and there are Building Control performance standards currently being worked on which should help ensure a level playing field and that will guard against any reduction in standards.
We work within a fairly rural setting where the standards are pretty high from our locally-based builders and architects. The ‘Cowboy Builder’ problem is something we don’t often suffer when compared to large towns and cities, but it’s still a real problem, and I wish more could be done about it. There’s nothing to stop anyone calling themselves a builder and ripping people off.
Regarding housing delivery, it is dominated by National housebuilders, and comparatively little opportunities exist for the smaller or medium sized house builder. I think much of the reasoning is due to the spatial planning process that encourages large areas of land to be sold to develop hundreds of homes on one site. Smaller sites for locally based builders become harder to find.
Smaller local firms often achieve the highest standards, and we enjoy working with them to help achieve this. It would be hugely beneficial if all developers could work with building control in this way to achieve higher standards and quality in the industry. Those are recognised annually through our local awards scheme and by supporting nominated projects for the South West LABC Awards.
In recent years there has been an increase in competent persons’ schemes and the need to record information such as energy ratings. While at least some of this is good; it has inevitably led to increasing burdens on local authorities to record and retain such information together with subsequent requests for it. This adds costs in a time when councils are looking to reduce what they spend.
For our partnership, we are resilient and holding our own in this competitive environment. There are challenges within local government where there’s the risk of ongoing local authority cutbacks. I think the fact we are not-for-profit and fully investing all income from charges means we can carry on providing to at least the same standard, if not better than what we are at the moment.
There’s the possibility of our partnership expanding, with discussions being held at the moment. I can promise however that there will be an increase in collaboration whether we expand or not, so we can continue to deliver high standards to all our customers with greater consistency across an even wider area.
Andrew Carpenter MRICS MCABE MIFireE
Head of Partnership
Devon Building Control
Tel: 01626 215721