HL Deb 07 April 1970 vol 309 cc24-9

3.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The purpose of the Bill is to make the system of building control in Scotland more flexible and more responsive to modern building needs. The present sys-tem of control followed from the recommendations of the Guest Committee on Building Legislation in Scotland (Cmnd.269). This Report was welcomed, not only in this country but also abroad, as being a significant step forward in the field of building control legislation. The recommendations of the Report were accepted by the Government of the day and embodied in the Building (Scotland) Act 1959—which the Bill calls the principal Act—and the system of building standards regulations and procedures set up under it. This system came into operation in June, 1964.

Very briefly, the Secretary of State's function is to prescribe a code of building standards regulations in the interests of health, safety and convenience with which, by and large, all new building work have to comply. The duty, day by day, of ensuring compliance rests with the buildings authority for each county and burghal area through the familiar process of applications for building warrant. The Secretary of State's sole function in relation to such day to day matters is to grant relaxations from individual building regulations on individual applications being made to him by intending developers.

It is our experience of the past five years of the operation of this system that there is a need to simplify procedures and introduce a greater degree of flexibility. This should not be regarded as a criticism of the recommendations of the Guest Report: it is rather that both the Central Government and buildings authorities have now had five years' experience of handling a modern sophisticated building code of a very comprehensive nature based on that Report, and improvements and changes are, we think, now needed.

The Bill has four main purposes: to reduce the time taken to put into effect amendments to the building standards regulations; to enable general relaxations to be given by the Secretary of Slate; to permit buildings authorities themselves to grant relaxations in respect of certain regulations, and to enable the Secretary of State to call in for his own determination applications for warrant to build.

Clause 1 of the Bill is designed to streamline the procedure for making and amending the building standards regulations so that necessary amendments can be introduced more quickly. The present steps to be taken in making and amending the regulations are set out in Section 3(6) of the principal Act. Under this procedure a first comprehensive building code was provided in the Building Standards Regulations (S.I. 1963, No. 1897) and major amending regulations were made in 1967. A further set has been through the required procedure and is being printed for laying. Under the present procedure it takes over two years to make amendments to the regulations. This is far too long if the regulations are to keep pace with changing building techniques.

Clause 1 replaces subsection (6) of Section 3 by a new subsection (6), which provides that the Secretary of State, before laying new or amending regulations, must consult the Building Standards Advisory Committee appointed under Section 12 of the principal Act and such other bodies as appear to him to be representative of the interests concerned". Where he is consolidating the regulations he is not required to carry out these consultations. This amended procedure will substantially reduce the amount of time taken to amend the regulations, and will also provide a quick and easy means of giving those engaged in the day-to-day business of building an up-to-date consolidated version of the current regulations, which, as your Lordships will appreciate, is an urgent necessity now and a recurring need as further amendments are made.

There will be no lack of consultation or opportunity to comment under this new procedure when the regulations are being changed. A list is maintained of all those bodies who have at some time or another expressed an interest in building standards regulations—there are, in fact, some 200 such bodies—and they will all be given an opportunity to comment on proposed amendments since these will be circulated to them officially. Publicity will also be given in the Press and it will be open to anyone who feels he has an interest to write asking for a copy of the proposed amendments.

In any event, the making and amending of regulations is a co-operative effort between the Government and all those concerned, including public authorities with building programmes, the construction industry, buildings authorities, architects, builders, firemasters, masters of works and others with responsibilities in the building field. Noble Lords will, I think, not be surprised to know that the bulk of suggestions for amendments of the regulations originate from bodies like these. This new procedure therefore, still ensures that there will be full opportunity for all interested parties to comment on proposed amendments.

Clause 2 deals with relaxations of building standards regulations. Under present procedure, as set out in Section 4 of the principal Act, the Secretary of State alone has power to give directions granting relaxations of the regulations. He can do this only in individual cases and on individual application. Clause 2 of the Bill substitutes for the existing Section 4 two new Sections, 4 and 4A, which extend the Secretary of State's powers. Subsection 1(a) of the new Section 4 re-enacts the Secretary of State's power to relax in individual cases. Sub-section 1(b)—and this is new—gives the Secretary of State power to grant a " block " relaxation.

This facility should give greater flexibility in relaxing the regulations where a structural feature requiring relaxation can be identified which will be repetitively used in building and where the case for relaxation is in each case identical. For example, a general relaxation might be given for the universal use in dwellinghouses of prefabricated metal chimneys which do not comply strictly with the letter of the current regulations (based on traditional brick chimneys) but are otherwise wholly statisfactory. Again, such a waiver might be granted to enable local housing authorities to adopt new space standards pending the amendment of the building regulations. This facility will avoid the necessity for individual applications for relaxation having to be made where identical circumstances arise in identical buildings, and will greatly help in the rapid adoption of new building components into day-to-day building practice.

Subsection (2) of the new Section 4 enables the Secretary of State to delegate to buildings authorities power to deal with relaxations in individual cases. The regulations which we initially propose to delegate to buildings authorities are those dealing with improvements and conversions to existing dwellinghouses. In this sphere, rigid consistency imposed by Central Government is not essential. The new Section 4A provides for the right of appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision by a buildings authority. Noble Lords will be pleased to note that what we are now providing accords with a recommendation in the Cullingworth Report that procedures associated with house improvements should be stream-lined.

The last major provision is Clause 4. This introduces a new Section, Section 6A, under which the Secretary of State is enabled to call in for his own determination applications for warrant to build. Noble Lords will be familiar with the now well established process of "call in" in the planning sphere. This is an easily appreciated parallel. It will be understood perforce that the building regulations must reflect requirements for the standard run of building projects and practice. One can, and one does, meet what is now often called the "one-off" job of very considerable complexity and major scale where the regulations do not fit at all points. The clause is solely designed to cater for such cases.

May I illustrate this by referring to the multi-level, large-scale building complex, which is now becoming a regular part of our city and town centre developments. There is no doubt that these projects—which, with their internal streets, car parking and multi-level shopping facilities have the effect of concentrating large numbers of persons into comparatively congested buildings of abnormal depth—may require special fire, ventilation and means of escape provisions. It is to deal with such special provisions that this clause has been designed. Although such cases will be comparatively rare, probably no more than one or two a year, it is essential that the Secretary of State should have power to dispose of them comprehensively.

There is no question here of the Secretary of State encroaching on local buildings authorities day-to-day responsibilities. The proposed power is being provided simply to cope expeditiously with exceptional cases such as I have mentioned. In such cases, the Secretary of State will consult the buildings authority and developer at as early a stage as possible. If the Secretary of State considers, on the preliminary evidence, that his special powers may be required, he will then—through the buildings autho-rity—call in the application for his detailed scrutiny.

Subsections (4) and (5) of new Section 6A carefully identify the questions the Secretary of State may then examine. These are related strictly to the achievement of, or compliance with, appropriate building standards. The Secretary of State may decide that his special powers are not required, in which case the application will be returned to the buildings authority to be dealt with in the normal manner; he may decide to determine the application only in part or additionally or, alternatively, that more onerous conditions are required than the regulations contain; again, he may decide that relaxations are needed. Where more onerous conditions are required, sub-section (7) provides that the Building Standards Advisory Committee must be specially consulted. After the Secretary of State has carried out his action on the case it will be returned to the buildings authority, who must give a decision on the building warrant application which accords with any determination or relaxation made or granted by the Secretary of State.

The remaining clauses of the Bill deal with, in comparison, less important matters. Clause 3 is designed to clarify the original intention of Section 6(8)(b) of the principal Act which, as presently worded, admits an onerous and disadvantageous interpretation where improvements are proposed to existing buildings which fall below full conformity with the building standards regulations.

If I may give an illustration, the kind of case which has cropped up is where an application has been made for an extension to a building with a window or windows of the type required by the building regulations, which the authority have felt obliged to refuse because the existing windows in the building did not conform; or, alternatively, where they have felt obliged to refuse an application because the height of the ceilings in the existing house did not conform to modern standards. It was never intended that improvements should fall in that particular way, and this amendment will make the law in the form that Parliament originally expected it to be applied.

Clause 5 modernises and makes uniform in burghs and landward areas the penalties for the unauthorised dumping in streets of builders' materials, and also requires that where a buildings authority proposes to give permission for the depositing of building materials in streets it must first consult the highway authority. Clauses 6, 7 and 8 and the Schedules deal with consequential or common-form provisions.

My Lords, this Bill is useful and necessary in order that building standards in Scotland keep abreast of modern building practice and that our system of control deals realistically and flexibly with the progressing of all types of construction in the interests of the health, safety and convenience of our people. It is on that basis that I commend it to your Lordships. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Hughes.)