Auditor-General's overview

Auckland Council: How it deals with building consents.

The Local Government (Auckland Council) Act 2009 requires me to periodically audit how well Auckland Council and each of its council-controlled organisations provide services. My second such audit focused on how well Auckland Council provides services through its Building Control department. I chose this because it is an important aspect of the housing challenges that Auckland faces.

Auckland Council is the largest accredited building consent authority in New Zealand. Building Control has about 550 staff. It processes more than 17,000 building consent applications and carries out about 148,000 inspections a year. It is also responsible for issuing building warrants of fitness and managing building weathertightness claims.

Building Control's work is of vital importance to Auckland's social and economic fabric. Buying or building a house is the biggest investment that many people will make in their lifetime.

Customers' experiences

Although Building Control has various ways of communicating and interacting with its customers, I am concerned that communication is not as good as it should be. Surveys show that customers are not satisfied with how Building Control communicates. The fact that 70% of consent applications lodged go "on hold" pending further information suggests that there is a large gap between what Building Control expects and what customers believe is expected of them. Architectural and building firms told us that Building Control does not always communicate well or in a consistent way. Auckland Council recently commissioned a large audit focused on customers, which found that communication is one of the areas where improvements can be made.

Auckland Council is technically meeting the statutory deadline for processing most building applications, complying with statutory time frames 98.5% of the time in 2013/14. The average time to process applications is 9-10 working days, much less than the statutory time limit of 20 working days. But the statutory time frame allows all territorial authorities to exclude the days that the application is put on hold.

When the total elapsed time from lodging the application to issuing the consent is considered, Auckland Council processes 80% of applications within 40 working days. However, in exceptional circumstances, some applications can take more than 100 days to process. This includes the time it takes customers to provide the additional material requested.

Auckland Council needs to reduce the average time it takes to process applications, including reducing the amount of work it places on hold. In my view, there should be more emphasis on measuring and reporting the actual time taken to process applications. I consider that Auckland Council should publish full time frame performance measures as well as report how well it meets statutory deadlines. I also consider that Auckland Council should continue to seek to improve customers' experiences and gradually introduce more demanding targets.

Otherwise effective management

In my view, Auckland Council is performing its responsibilities as a building consent authority reasonably well. Building Control's internal quality assurance procedures are sound, with systems and technical audits carried out routinely. It also has a good standard of internal reporting of workflows and how well it meets targets.

Building Control is focused on ensuring that it has the capacity and capability to meet the expected increased demand for services. It is recruiting new graduates to address challenges it faces because of an ageing workforce. Building Control is introducing new training initiatives. Measures are being put in place to ensure that all technical staff have the requisite qualifications in time to meet new regulatory requirements.

Building Control is carrying out "risk-based consenting" initiatives to reduce the processing times for minor work, for standardised housing consent applications, and for building firms that enter into specific agreements with Auckland Council. These good steps are in the early stages of development.

International Accreditation New Zealand has recently re-confirmed Auckland Council, through the work of Building Control, as an accredited consenting authority. In a recent audit report, it complimented Auckland Council on the quality of its work, and issued no "Corrective Action Requests".

Improvements that Auckland Council is working on

The process of approving consent applications is largely paper-based. Relatively straightforward consent applications require a lot of paper. This is inefficient and costly for Auckland Council and applicants. Auckland Council is planning to introduce electronic lodgement of consent applications, and the forecast efficiency gains seem compelling. In my view, the electronic system should be introduced sooner than planned.

The introduction of tablets to record inspections is expected to increase productivity in inspections.

Auckland Council has had to merge the separate building control operations of Auckland's former local authorities into a cohesive unit. Differences in the way work is done in different locations are progressively being addressed.

Where improvements should be focused

The forecasting model used to predict future demand for services is continually being refined. The assumptions and predictions used in modelling by the Housing Project Office and Building Control differ. The number of building consents resulting from the Auckland Housing Accord and Special Housing Areas has been much less than Building Control expected. The model will need to be adjusted to take account of the different bases of measurement between Building Control and the Housing Project Office.

I consider that the model should also be improved by including projections to at least the next long-term plan horizon (2025). It should also explicitly link the timing and productivity benefits of transformation projects to the resources needed.

My staff compared Auckland Council's consent charges to those of other large local authorities. Because of differences in how buildings are grouped and building value thresholds, it was difficult to draw any firm conclusions. However, I noted that the average cost of a sample of actual consent fees in Auckland was significantly higher than the fees shown on Auckland Council's website. This suggests that more time was needed to process the consent applications than was expected. The differences from other local authorities provide an opportunity for Auckland Council, and all local authorities, to discuss how to get costs into line or to make comparisons easier.

Auckland Council is achieving a reasonable standard in its Building Control department. Although there are significant customer service aspects to improve, the particular strengths in quality and general reporting are heartening.

I thank Auckland Council staff, builders, and architects who my staff interviewed for their help.

Signature - LP

Lyn Provost
Controller and Auditor-General

22 April 2015

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