A risk worth taking?

Angela Smith

Angela Smith on the worrying impact of changes to domestic building regulations

‘The Building Regulations etc (Amendment) Regulations 2012’ isn’t a particularly inspiring title. But it hides wide ranging changes that the government is making to health and safety legislation brought in by Labour back in 2004. If it sounds dry and technical – it is.  

It is also deadly serious.

It is well known that sub-standard electrical installation work and incompetence can, and does, result in death, injury, loss and damage to property. What is known as ‘Part P’ of the building regulations was brought in to ensure that electrical work in kitchens, bathrooms and outdoor electrical installations were undertaken by a properly qualified person. It sought to reduce the number of deaths, injuries and fires caused by faulty work in the home, improve the average level of competence of those undertaking the work, and raise awareness of both builders and householders on the need for care.

Over 27,000 additional contractors have had their work inspected every year to ensure it is safe; and the devices preventing potentially fatal electric shocks are now in over 62% of homes.  The government’s own evidence shows that lives have been saved and many dangerous incidents prevented. So why would Ministers want to change this?

In short, it’s their favourite ‘D’ word again – ‘deregulation’.

They’re not removing all checks; just what they describe as ‘smaller-scale, lower risk work’. But many in the profession and the Electrical Safety Council are worried.

In seeking to reduce costs of this undoubtedly successful safety measure, the government says its consultation exercise produced overwhelming support for its proposals to weaken the legislation; claiming that 65% of the 158 responses supported the changes with just 27% opposed.

However, if you dig a little deeper into the results of this consultation, it is not as clear cut as the statistics they have singled out. Only 132 of the responses related to whether electrical alteration work in kitchens should be excluded – and of those 51% supported the government, with 43% opposing.

Nor is it clear cut when you look in more detail at who said what on kitchen alterations. Although 15 of the 16 householders who responded supported the government, an overwhelming majority of local authority building control responses – 20 from 29 – oppose the plans. And 3 of the 4 competent person schemes didn’t back the changes either. Ministers therefore have little support from those who undertake the assessment and inspections.  In their rush to cut red tape, the views of those who have to put right unsafe electrical work has been neglected.

The most common concerns within the responses is that the kitchen is a higher risk area, with that risk significantly increased by electrical work being carried out as part of wider kitchen alternations by those less electrically competent.

So, will these changes leave householders more at risk from cowboy tradesman?  Ministers say they “achieve a reasonable balance of risk”. But whether that level of risk is a price worth paying is yet to be seen.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is member of Labour’s frontbench in the Lords, and a former Minister for building regulations

Published 18th March 2013


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