More must be done ‘to produce less’ when presenting services online

Managers of local authority building control services need to simplify information on their web pages so that householders commissioning what is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime building project can readily understand and discharge their responsibilities, the latest survey by Better Connected has revealed.

As the report points out, being ignorant of what is required could leave householders with unnecessary costs, fines and other complications – including serious setbacks when the property comes to be sold.

Too many web pages covering building control (building standards in Scotland) appear to be written by professionals for professionals, when the assumption should be that the website visitor has little prior knowledge of the subject.

Better Connected tested shire and Northern Ireland districts, English, Welsh and Scottish Unitaries and London boroughs on the task ‘Apply for building control’ (building warrant in Scotland). Overall, 34% of Scottish sites and 43% of sites in the rest of the UK (the systems are slightly different) are rated good or very good on this task, which shows there is considerable room for improvement.

 

Clear and simple

Better Connected reviewers were looking for a clear and simple, high-level explanation of the process of compliance with building regulations/standards on the council’s web pages (and not just in pdfs). This sort of initial task orientation – present on recommended sites run by Hounslow and Midlothian – was missing from many.

In all, only 44% of Scottish sites and just over a third of the rest got a ‘yes’ answer to the question about whether the whole compliance process from beginning to end is made clear. It was surprisingly difficult to find information specifically about certification, inspection and enforcement, issues of significant interest to householders.

A third of sites in Scotland failed the essential question: Can I easily find out whether the work I have commissioned (extension including new bathroom) requires a building standards warrant?, therefore ruling themselves out of a star ranking of more than two stars for this task.

 

External sources

The number of external sources linked to for information (Planning Portal, GOV.UK, LABC, and eBuilding Standards in Scotland) means that people visiting council sites for this purpose are exposed to a wide range of inconsistent content leading to some disjointed and confusing experiences. Using external content only worked where much attention had been paid to the overall customer journey and the pages linked to. Relying on links to lengthy pdfs, often provided by third parties and filled with advertising, were rarely a good solution.

A further complication in England and Wales is that building control is an activity where councils are in competition with the private sector. This led to a number of councils devoting space on their pages to a ‘hard sell’ for their services in lieu of useful information provision. Westminster is highlighted as a council that gets this issue right.

The Better Connected team did wonder whether the propensity to invite site visitors to call the council for information was driven by a desire to use personal contact as a means to secure building control business. Such an approach is, in our view, more likely to alienate people used to being able find answers to their questions 24/7.

A number of councils are working in partnership with other councils to deliver building control services. This makes sense but needs to be done with sensitivity to the customer journey which will in most cases take them there from Google via the resident’s own council website. Council sites should not land visitors on a partnership or other third party sites without explaining the hand over.

Results of the building control/standards surveys for the 353 councils tested are now available. Individual councils can find their results from the council index page at https://betterconnected.socitm.net/councils. The ‘all council’ reports can be found by following links from http://better.connected.boilerhousestudio.co.uk/services.

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