3. Understanding how well the building consent system is aligned with its intent
- BCAs generally have good policies and procedures in place to support their consenting function. This is contributing to overall agreement that the system is largely meeting its objective of ensuring that building work is carried out in line with the Building Code.
- At the same time, building consents often face lengthy processing times, delays due to requests for further information and unpredictable outcomes of decision-making.
- This indicates that while the system may be effectively achieving its intended outcome, it is not operating as efficiently or predictably as expected.
3.1 The building consent system is broadly aligned with its intent
The building consent system provides assurance that the performance of a building satisfies the requirements of the Building Code.
The requirements of the Building Code are performance-based, to allow development and innovation in building design, technology and systems. It establishes a framework for decision-making, with checks and balances at each stage of the building process. The process itself is not prescriptive, which allows for BCAs to develop their own methods for determining that design or building work satisfies the requirements of the Building Code.
BCAs are largely following similar and expected processes
Overall, the review found that BCAs largely follow the expected building consent process when processing building consents, inspecting building work and issuing certificates of code compliance. This was also reflected in a reviews of BCA practices, which are carried out biennially by International Accreditation New Zealand (IANZ) on behalf of MBIE. In their recent report, IANZ found that “in general, most BCAs have good policies, procedures and systems in place to effectively undertake their building control functions”.
The system allows for BCAs to develop their own structures and processes for managing their building control functions and minor differences between BCAs are common. These differences appear to be primarily administrative, relating to the practices around receiving applications and the technology systems used by BCAs.
For example, some BCAs provide templates and/or lists of required information to include with an application. BCA interview respondents noted that this was done to support applicants preparing applications, and that it helped manage the volume of documentation they receive in applications. Some BCAs will hold in-person or online pre-application meetings with prospective applicants, though these are more likely to take place to support higher complexity building types.
BCAs are also increasing their uptake of electronic consenting systems to manage the processing of applications though there is some variation in particular information technology systems being implemented. In addition, some BCAs noted that they are looking into increasing the use of technology to carry out inspections remotely.
There is broad agreement that the consent system is contributing to Code-compliant building work
Overall, there was general agreement among BCAs and sector professionals that the building consent system is largely meeting its objective of ensuring safe and durable buildings.
When asked about what they saw as being the objective of the system, nearly all interviewees said it was to ensure that buildings met the requirements of the Building Code, and were safe, durable and healthy for building users. The evaluation team also asked interviewees whether they thought the building consent system was aligned with this outcome. Interview participants were generally in agreement that the system was set up in such a way that the checks in the process would help to ensure that building work is designed and carried out in line with the Building Code.
Most BCAs surveyed agreed that the building consent system helps ensure safe, durable buildings (86 per cent agree or strongly agree), as did sector survey respondents (78 per cent agree or strongly agree).
BCA interviewees generally expressed confidence in the process, noting that they have sufficient opportunities to review building work through the design and construction stages to ensure that it was being carried out in a compliant manner. Some noted that work being reviewed and revised demonstrated that the system is achieving what it is meant to, by finding and resolving any faults through the process.
There is less certainty about whether the system is achieving its other intended outcomes of ensuring consistency and supporting innovation
The building consent system aims to achieve national consistency in administering the Building Act, Building Code and Regulations. This is supported by having minimum standards set out in the Building Code that all buildings must meet, and national accreditation requirements for BCAs to carry out their functions.
Although national consistency in the application of building standards was rarely mentioned by interviewees as a particular intention of the system, the consensus that it would ensure alignment with the Building Code suggests some agreement that the system sets a consistent requirement for building work across New Zealand. BCA survey respondents generally agreed that the system helps to ensure national consistency of building standards (64 per cent agree or strongly agree) although there was less certainty from sector professionals (49 per cent agree or strongly agree).
The building consent system is performance-based and does not set out how building work should be designed and carried out so long as it meets the objectives set out in the Building Code. This is intended to allow for innovation in building methods while still setting standards that building work must meet.
However, most BCAs surveyed did not believe that the building consent system supports innovative and modern methods of construction (14 per cent strongly disagree, 54 per cent disagree), neither did sector respondents (32 per cent strongly disagree, 41 per cent disagree).
3.2 The system is not operating as well as it could be
To be effective, the building consent system should provide assurance that the performance of a building satisfies the requirements of the Building Code. At the same time, it also needs to operate in a way that is efficient and predictable.
Efficiency in the context of the building consent system relates to the flow of applications and inspections through the process, and building work being able to be completed on schedule. The system should be able to achieve its intended outcomes while minimising the inputs and handling required.
A predictable system provides users with confidence that the process is carried out consistently, and that the Building Code will be applied in a way that achieves comparable outcomes across different BCAs.
Although it is largely effective in meeting its intent of ensuring compliant building work, feedback on practices within the building consent system suggests that the process is not being carried out in a way that was efficient or predictable. This is contributing to a lack of confidence that the system is working as intended.
“The building consent system rates well because we’re not seeing buildings fall down. But it gets a low rating in terms of its working components.” – BCO
Actual processing times are often longer than the statutory timeframes
BCAs have a statutory obligation to process a building consent application within 20 working days of receipt. This timeframe applies to all consents, regardless of their type or complexity. If the BCO requires additional information to process the consent they may issue a request for further information (RFI). This issuing of an RFI “stops the clock” until the requested information is supplied by the applicant.
The available evidence suggests that the majority of consents are processed in the 20-day timeframe. However, with many applications put on hold pending further information, the actual processing timeframe is likely to be much longer. The extent to which this might be an issue is not currently well understood due to the lack of sufficient consenting data.
A survey carried out by MBIE between March and September 2021 found that while performance varied significantly across all BCAs, decisions on residential building consents are made within an average of fourteen working days. However, this excludes the time an application was put on hold while the BCA awaited further information from the applicant. Processing times were also affected by the quality of applications and the complexity of the proposed building work. While most of the BCAs were found to be meeting their statutory requirements for processing times most of the time, MBIE estimates around one in four BCAs are struggling to meet these requirements.
Most BCAs surveyed did not feel that the building consent system helps ensure construction is completed in a timely manner (11 per cent strongly disagree, 50 per cent disagree), neither did sector survey respondents (32 per cent strongly disagree, 42 per cent disagree).
The majority of applications require RFIs to process, increasing the handling time
Feedback from both BCAs and the sector suggested that nearly all consent applications would receive at least one RFI, with some BCOs commenting that it would be unusual for an application not to receive an RFI. A 2015 audit of Auckland Council consenting processes found that 70 per cent of consent applications received at least one RFI. In 2017, an MBIE review of available data found that for applications requiring further information, an average of 11 items are requested.
Both BCA and sector respondents felt that there were too many RFIs being issued (75 per cent of BCA survey respondents, and 64 per cent of sector survey respondents). However, they differed in what they saw as the cause of this issue. Sector respondents typically saw RFIs as delay tactics to allow BCAs more time for processing applications by issuing “unnecessary” and “pedantic” RFIs. At the same time, BCA respondents noted that building and design work was frequently poor quality or incomplete, necessitating RFIs before they can provide approval.
A recent review of building consent applications for new Kāinga Ora housing found that all of the 16 sampled applications elicited RFIs but that “basic but minor errors resulted in RFIs [that] could have been avoided”. The report also noted that “all RFIs were reasonable and all with helpful advice to assist resolution”.
IANZ reported that many BCAs appeared reluctant to reject incomplete applications, even if they have reasonable grounds to do so. In guidance to BCAs regarding the processing of applications, MBIE notes that consent applications may be refused where insufficient or inadequate information has been received.
There is currently insufficient data available to understand broader trends in RFIs and the reasons for which they are issued. Further research would be helpful to better understand the nature of RFIs and the extent to which they contribute to delays in the application process.
Outcomes of the process can be unpredictable, both between and within BCAs
A BCA must grant a building consent if it is satisfied on reasonable grounds that the provisions of the Building Code will be met if the building work is completed in accordance with the plans and specifications. This allows for variation in design and building work so long as they satisfy the performance requirements of the Building Code.
However, sector professionals often expressed frustration with what they saw as inconsistent and unpredictable outcomes for similar work. While administrative differences contributed to this issue (such as different IT systems and paperwork requirements), varied interpretations of the Building Code by BCOs and inspectors appeared to be the main point of tension.
“The changing requirements from BCA regarding what information is required to document compliance etc, it changes from person to person and project to project.” – Architect
“The lack of consistency across BCAs both in consent application process and methodology and in consent assessment is our biggest issue. Each BCA has its own application process and forms requiring different information, details and methodology.” – Architect
While variation between BCAs was more commonly raised by respondents, variation within an individual BCA was also identified as an issue. Many sector respondents, in both interviews and survey responses, commented on the high level of variability between how individual BCOs process applications and undertake inspections. The common complaint was that the outcome of your application or inspection can come down to “who you get” (88 per cent of sector survey respondents agreed).
There also appears to be some difference in how individual BCOs understand whether a change is a minor variation or should be handled as an amendment to the building consent. This is an important distinction as minor variations can be signed off on-site, while amendments require re-application and approval, often contributing to delays in carrying out building work.
This evaluation aims to better understand the causes of problems in the system
BCAs generally have good policies and systems in place to manage the building consent process. However, concerns from both BCAs and the sector about unexpected delays and unpredictable outcomes indicate that the system is not working as well as intended.
Although interviewees expressed confidence that the system was ultimately achieving what it was meant to do, they also acknowledged that the system continued to be difficult and frustrating to navigate.
The issues impacting on the operation of the building consent system will be explored in Section 4.
 IANZ, 2021.
 MBIE, 2021.
 Controller and Auditor-General, 2015.
 MBIE, 2017.
 Independent Expert Panel commissioned by MBIE, 2021.