Friday, July 31, 2015

Karl du Fresne: So much for the Licensed Building Practitioner scheme ...

The house I live in was built in 1916. My wife and I plan a party next year to celebrate its centenary. Of all the houses we’ve owned (this is number seven), it’s the one in which I've felt most at home.
It was built in what architectural historians call the transitional villa style, an intermediate stage between the traditional villa of the late 19th century and the Californian bungalow that became fashionable after World War I.
It’s by no means grand, but the rooms are generously proportioned. It incorporates some lovely woodwork and leadlight glass.

Traditional materials were used (native timber weatherboard, matai flooring, corrugated iron roof), but the house has some unusual features, including charming round leadlight windows that my architectural draughtsman brother told me are known as aurioles.

And boy, was it strongly built. When a builder cut a hole between two rooms to put in French doors several years ago, he marvelled at how sturdy the interior walls were.

Two powerful earthquakes in 1942 – 7.2 and 6.8 respectively on the Richter scale – caused mayhem in Masterton, where we live, but the only damage suffered by our house was the loss of a brick chimney (one of thousands that toppled in the town).

Now here’s my point. You can be sure that whoever built our house had no formal training or qualifications. No one in the building trade did then. I’m not even sure that councils employed building inspectors.

But houses of that era were built to last. My own grandfather was a builder in Palmerston North whose proudest creation, a magnificent 1904 villa called Kaingahou, has a category II rating from Heritage New Zealand and is regarded as a showpiece.

Contrast this with the situation I heard described on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon programme last week. Complaints about substandard building work have risen by 30 per cent this year. In Auckland, one-third of building inspections result in a “fail”.

Some of the failings were detailed on the programme. They included fundamental stuff like concrete blocks not lining up, gaps and cracks in foundations and walls out of true. Nine to Noon host Kathryn Ryan described some of the photos she was shown as “shockers”.

Auckland Council’s manager of building control partly attributed the problem to the city’s building boom, which he says has created jobs for a lot of inexperienced people.

Same old, same old. The building industry has always been prone to boom-and-bust cycles.
I couldn’t help thinking that if standards are so poor now, how bad might they get when the promised increase in housing construction starts in Auckland?

But what I most wanted to know was how all this could happen just three and a half years after the government, amid much fanfare, launched the Licensed Building Practitioner (LBP) scheme.

It was introduced in response to the disastrous leaky homes crisis and was supposed to ensure, if I recall correctly, that shoddy building work would be a thing of the past.

The scheme imposed a cumbersome new bureaucracy on the building trade and required tradesmen to jump through all manner of hoops in order to demonstrate competence. A builder friend of mine was almost apoplectic at what he called suffocating control by meddling bureaucrats, which he argued would raise building costs, stifle innovation and create barriers to employment.

The supreme irony, to me, was that the scheme appeared to enhance the power of the very same bureaucracy that had presided over the leaky homes epidemic in the first place.

And what has been the result? More shoddy building work. Ryan got an admission out of the Auckland Council building control manager (who was commendably frank) that we were at risk of another leaky buildings catastrophe.

I waited for her to ask him the obvious question: how could this happen so soon after the introduction of an elaborate scheme expressly created to prevent it? She never did.

I was left to conclude that when you combine political pressure to “do something” about a problem (such as leaky homes) with a na├»ve faith in the power of regulations to change people’s behaviour, the results are rarely the ones desired.

We have recently seen another example of this. Parental smacking was banned in 2007, supposedly to reduce New Zealand’s shocking incidence of violence against children.

It has done nothing of the sort, just as critics of the anti-smacking law predicted. In fact reported child abuse rates increased by 83 per cent between 2008 and 2013.

All that has happened is that a lot of good parents have been subjected unnecessarily to the stigma and unpleasantness of police investigations for harmless acts of parental discipline.

Similarly, I confidently predict that this year’s reduction in the drink-driving limit will have minimal impact on the road toll. Responsible people have cut back their alcohol intake, even if their consumption was moderate to start with, but reckless drunks will continue to behave as they always have.

It seems there are some lessons we just never learn.

Karl du Fresne blogs at This article was first published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard.


Brian said...

Excellent summary of what New Zealand has, and will endure, with this continual increase in our bureaucracy.
I can add another one. The recent safety regulations imposed on builders. Just how do one attach sheets of roofing long run pr other types etc with all this expensive scaffolding impeding a roofer? The answer is obvious, they have to ignore these stupid and expensive regulations to get the job done.

If this TPP scheme becomes our trade law, and dairying returns remain in the doldrums, then one might ask the question "Will we be able to afford (and tolerate) this ever increasing bureaucracy"? It is an answer I for one, would look forward too from all our Political Parties at the next election.

Unknown said...

You will be waiting a long time for action from political parties Brian. They are a thing of the past and no longer serve their employers. The only way to change is to reject the power crazy mediocre egos on legs that parties put in front of us at elections and start finding our own representatives from in our own communities with the right credentials and sending them, unfettered by a party bureaucracy, to represent our region. This is the way to inhibit the influence of powerful special interest groups and exercise more control over our employees.Independent candidates is the only way to change anything now in our failed political system. The parties over. Knowing our apathetic,cowardly ignorant naive ,lazy,self interested gullible electorate though, that is very unlikely.

Barry said...

Well put Karl. If the bureaucrats think that they have all the answers , they need to think again. I have been in the building industry for the last 50 years, both in manufacturing, management and for the last 29 years as a self employed builder. I was one of the first to apply for my LBP license , but was asked to wait almost 12 months while the assessor's dealt with the urgency of Christchurch. I can understand that, but just who were they approving? We were told , that only individuals could apply , not building companies. With the rebuild or CHCH well underway, Just who holds the licence? With all the foreign construction workers in CHCH I can only hope that they have all been assessed on the same basis as kiwi builders. If not , who will hold the can for any future problems that may arise when they pack up their tools and head home

StevoC said...

I have been in the building industry for over 45 years, I am a qualified Carpenter/ joiner,(you could do both those days) but I haven't been on the tools for some years now, so I'm no longer qualified to be a builder, yet I know of pastry cooks running building companies with no qualifications whatsoever but somehow they get licenced.
We are about to reap what our useless politicians have sowed for us by allowing sub standard workers to take over the industry.
We all new what was going to happen when they started fiddling/canning the apprenticeship schemes, our political chickens are coming home to roost.