Consents team ready for audit

Three years after nearly losing its accreditation to issue building consents, the Queenstown Lakes District Council's building consents team's performance has improved out of sight, its manager says.

A month after a consultant ran the ruler over the department's processes, building services manager Chris English says he is feeling as confident as he can be three months before an audit by Crown agency International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ).

The council had followed the lead of its Waitaki counterpart, which had commissioned a similar assessment, he said.

"We got a copy of their report and found it quite helpful, so we commissioned the same lady to come and do one for us.

"The beauty of this is we get a heads-up of what we need to sharpen up and work on over the next three months, so it's been a really valuable exercise."

In May 2016, the picture could not have been more different.

The council's accreditation - for one of the basic functions of any local authority - hung in the balance.

An IANZ audit identified a raft of problems: incomplete or poor-quality applications were being accepted; record-keeping and staff training were inadequate; and code compliance certificates were being issued despite applicants providing insufficient information.

Over two months of that year, it processed only 26% of consents within the statutory 20-day timeframe. Building firms and landowners were experiencing delays of weeks and months.

In short, it found an understaffed department struggling in the midst of an unprecedented building boom.

Six months after handing over a long list of "corrective action" requests and recommendations to implement, the agency carried out a second audit that gave the council a sufficiently clean bill of health to keep its accreditation.

Normally conducted every two years, a third audit was made a year later to ensure it was back on track.

Mr English, who started his role two years ago, said 2016 was the council's "wake-up call".

"Back then, when we weren't performing particularly well, the IANZ assessment brought that to people's attention in rather stark terms.

"As a result, we've transformed the team and performance has improved out of sight."

Staffing had grown from 25 to 41 full-time-equivalent positions, and eight contractors were helping with processing and inspections.

Recruitment had been a huge challenge because of a nationwide - and growing - shortage of experienced building control officers.

Of those still out there, many were approaching retirement.

The cost of housing in Queenstown made the challenge even harder.

As the council continued to upskill its own staff, it relied on experienced contractors to do about half of its work.

"Without those external people, we just couldn't actually do the amount of work we need to do."

The goal was to do about 70% of the work internally, but contractors would always be needed because they gave the council the flexibility to cope with "bow waves" of demand.

After a steady year-on-year improvement, the number of consents being processed within 20 days dipped to 94% in the past financial year.

Mr English said it had struggled to keep up with commercial consents late last year and early this year.

But new staff and more contractors had boosted its capacity, and it achieved 98% in May and 97% last month.

Registered Master Builders Central Otago branch president Allister Saville said the council got itself into trouble by laying off some experienced staff in 2013 - a couple of years before a building boom hit the resort.

By 2016, the situation had become pretty bad.

Mr Saville said the association's 130-plus members made up about two-thirds of the region's residential and commercial builders.

The consensus was "there's been change and it's change for the good", but there was plenty of room for improvement.

The biggest gripe was the council's continuing reliance on highly paid contractors to do much of its work.

Because contractors were often based in centres such as Invercargill or Christchurch, they lacked knowledge about local builders, and could be inconsistent in their approach.

"Some [builders] are long-established people who don't need their hand held ... and then there're some guys they should be looking after."

While he accepted there were recruitment challenges, the council needed to do more to build up its own team, he said.


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