Consents – the other side of the story

Local government bodies are an easy target when things start to go awry and the building consent process is no exception – so we decided to get their side of the story…

[This special report – researched and written by Dinniss Communications – featured in Under Construction, Issue 55, August 2016 (sign-up required to read online)]

Every day, staff at New Zealand’s 72 accredited building consent authorities (BCAs) work hard issuing consents for all sorts of building projects, ranging from multi-storey bespoke homes to retaining walls and carports.

Legislation requires that these consents be processed within 20 working days. Under Construction canvassed a selection of BCAs to find out how many consents they’re processing within that statutory period and to provide a snapshot of how well authorities are performing nationwide.

The legislation allows for BCAs to ‘stop the clock’ when they need to request more information from the applicant, which means that a consent classified as processed within the 20-day statutory period may actually have taken longer than that to process.

Eight BCAs provided figures of how many consents they processed within the 20-day limit for the year to June 2016. Of those, seven consistently processed more than 90% of all building consents within the limit.

The top three performers were Upper Hutt City Council and New Plymouth District Council (both 100% within the limit) and Tasman District Council (98.6% within the limit).

What causes delays?

Building control officers across the country cited incomplete documentation as the most common cause of delays in the consent process.

Tasman District Council building assurance manager Sharon Threadwell said that while her department was performing well, she estimated around 80% of all consent applications required ‘stop the clock’ information requests.

Sharon’s advice for builders and designers submitting consent applications is to:

Attach a covering letter outlining what’s included in responses to further information requests, to reduce time.

Apply for a project information memorandum (PIM) before applying for a building consent, because the two don’t need to be applied for together.

Ensure that the plans and specifications in the application meet the minimum standards required by the building code.

“I think what often happens is that a client might get on a builder or designer’s case, so they end up submitting incomplete forms to be able to say a project is under way – but a clean consent leads to a faster consenting process, which is better for everyone.”

New Zealand’s largest BCA, Auckland Council, processed more than 20,000 building consents between June 2015 and May 2016 and, on average, more than 96% were processed within the 20-day period.

Building control manager Ian McCormick said that around 68% of those required additional information requests.

“Every time we have to request additional information, it slows everything down because often we’re waiting up to a week or longer for the information to be provided. Then the processing officer has to review all the information again to remind themselves of what they looked at previously,” said Ian.

He listed common problems leading to further information requests as:

Design plans submitted without enough information.

A lack of coordination between experts, such as engineers and architects.

Designs that don’t take building site features into account.

“As general advice, I’d recommend that designers visit a site before submitting any plans to us and also that people approach us with any questions as early as possible.

“We’re very open to having conversations to help smooth out the process.”

Quality control

Head of building consents at Christchurch City Council (CCC), Leonie Rae, said that some builders and designers treat councils as their quality assurance provider.

“There seems to be a mindset among some people that they’ll just put an application into council and let us determine what’s missing, rather than actually submitting a complete application up front,” said Leonie.

“So, with inspections for instance, we’ve started sending some of our group home builder customers reports highlighting their inspection failure rates and how much that costs them in dollar terms.”

One of the CCC’s customers had a failure rate of around 50%, which
has since dropped to close to 20% because they introduced a quality assurance system. Leonie said she recommends all building companies put in place their own quality assurance systems.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about building houses. We want to work with the industry to make sure we have quality housing stock for the future and I think builders and designers with robust quality assurance systems play a part in that.”

Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone

New Plymouth District Council building lead Peter Scantlebury agrees with the sentiment that a number of people within the industry rely on councils as their quality control.

Peter – and the others quoted in this article – said that hosting good conversations with the building industry was a positive way of addressing the issue.

“We send out a newsletter every two months to designers and builders, and every three months we hold a group meeting with industry practitioners and the professional groups (RMB, CBA etc), so we can address any issues.

“I find that by having a working relationship with our stakeholders, you tend to get more willing compliance rather than if you’re seen as a monster on the other side of a desk.”

Peter said that while they couldn’t force people to attend the meetings, they were always open to answering any questions builders may have about a consent or building legislation in general.

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