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Council websites ‘complicate building controls process’

16/12/16

Latest Socitm survey rates less than half as being good in making it easy for residents to understand what they need to do

Local authorities’ websites are often failing to make it easy for householders to understand their responsibilities when commissioning building projects, according to public sector IT association Socitm.

Roof under constructionIts latest Better Connected survey has led it to conclude that too many of the web pages on building control (known as 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.

There is a danger this can leave householders with unnecessary costs, fines and other complications – including setbacks when the property comes to be sold.

The survey covered the websites of 353 councils, assessing how well they support the task ‘Apply for building control’ in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and ‘Apply for a building warrant’ in Scotland, where the process differs. 

Room for improvement

It rated only 34% of Scottish sites and 43% of those in the rest of the UK as good or very good on the task. Socitm said this shows there is considerable room for improvement, and that managers of local authority building control services need to simplify information on their web pages.

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. The survey team said it was surprisingly difficult to find information specifically about certification, inspection and enforcement, which are 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?’. This ruled them out of a ranking of more than two stars for the task.

Further complications arise from the number of links to external sources – such as the Planning Portal, GOV.UK and eBuilding Standards in Scotland – which can provide 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 PDF documents, often provided by third parties and filled with advertising, rarely provide a good solution.

Private sector competition

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.

The report highlights some more positive findings, such as good practice by Hounslow, Midlothian and Westminster, and that a number of councils are working with others to deliver building control services.

It says 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 handover.

The report comes days after news of that another Better Connected survey found that many councils are not providing sufficient information to people looking for social housing in their areas.

 Image by Bryn Pinzgauer, CC BY 2.0 through flickr

 

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