Whilst developers of residential buildings in 2021 are basking in the sunshine of increased residential sales arising out of the stamp duty holiday, many are also nursing a hangover from lockdown construction delays, costs increases and Brexit materials shortages. Meanwhile, another less obvious hurdle lurks just around the corner.
Last week, the draft Building Safety Bill was introduced in Parliament. This follows on from the Hackitt review into building regulations in the aftermath of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which claimed the lives of 72 people and injured over 70 more. The draft Bill is of course subject to possible extensive amendment, but what potential implications are there for residential property developers in Northern Ireland?
Building Safety Regulator, Higher-risk Buildings and Accountable Person
Developers in Northern Ireland will breathe a sigh of relief when they learn that some of the Bill’s more onerous requirements do not apply in Northern Ireland. Unlike their English counterparts they will not have to worry about a new Building Safety Regulator or the requirement to appoint an ‘Accountable Person’ during occupation.
However, this relief may only be short-lived as a similar regulatory regime could well follow in Northern Ireland if the Assembly decides a more robust regime is needed for higher-risk Buildings.
The Grenfell Tower Inquiry revealed that unsuitable combustible materials had been used during construction, the charge being that testing processes were being evaded to get products on the market. The Bill will establish a new regulator which will apply to all construction products marketed in the UK. However, it remains to be seen how onerous this regime will be as it relies largely on subsequent regulations. Additionally, the draft Bill seems to dilute the regime by setting out what these regulations may do rather than what they must do. In fact, it appears to include a discretion as to whether provisions are made at all.
Despite this uncertainty, developers in Northern Ireland should be mindful that a range of regulations could be introduced imposing certain requirements, prohibiting products and mandating inspections.
The draft Bill empowers the Architects Registration Board (ARB) to monitor the competence of an architect and remove them from the register if they fail to meet the laid down criteria. The Bill defines competence quite vaguely by referring to the required skills, knowledge, experience, and behaviours to practice as an architect as the benchmark. The precise standard the ARB will hold architects to remains to be seen.
It appears architects that fall below the competence threshold are given a second chance, so to speak. They can apply for an extension to prove their competence by gaining experience or completing a training course. However, architects and developers should be aware that the ARB may choose not to grant such an extension. Presumably, this decision would only be taken in extreme cases. Developers in Northern Ireland should give very careful consideration to their choice of architect as intervention from the ARB will inevitably cause delays and increased costs.
Perhaps most importantly and of greatest immediate interest to developers is the provision for a new Homes Ombudsman scheme. This appears to be drafted more robustly as certain minimum standards are included in the draft legislation. Under this scheme complaints can be made against developers, and they must be investigated and determined by an independent individual. Furthermore, regulations may be introduced to require developers to become members of the scheme and for civil sanctions to be made. However, this outcome is not pre-determined and remains to be decided by accompanying regulations and there may in time be exceptions to the membership requirement. It is expected that many aspects of the Building Safety Bill will come under intense scrutiny during its passage through Parliament.
If you require any advice in relation to commercial property transactions, please contact Graham Pierce on 028 9043 4015.
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