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Self-certification or self-destruction?
08/01/2005 Published in NST-PROP A Buyer Watch Article by National House Buyers Association

SINCE Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi made the call for Certificates of Fitness for Occupation (CFs) of completed housing units to be issued by professional consultants working on these projects instead of by local councils as is currently the case, two distinct opinions have been formed.

One lauds the move, saying it is a bold step that will save time, cut red tape and improve the public delivery system. At the same time, this camp says the Prime Minister's objective to put in place a system of governance that is more responsive to people's needs will enable the officers of the local councils to concentrate on other important tasks as well as cut down opportunities for corruption.

Making a project's consultants, namely its architects and engineers, responsible for the fitness of the built structures is also seen as a step towards the national integrity that Abdullah is striving to achieve in the country. After all, honour, responsibility, accountability and leadership are the hallmarks of professionalism.

However, on the flipside, there are opinions that allowing a project's consultants to certify projects would be self-destructive and in fact lead to more inferior standard buildings. As the arguments go, these consultants are in fact agents of the developer, whose priority has long been profit first and build quality last. Therefore, how independent can they be?

Let's examine the other reasons why there are doubts that self-certification is a step in the right direction.

Mutual trust

Currently, local authorities are responsible for enforcing the Uniform Building By-Laws (UBBL). While many developers comply with the law because it is the right thing to do, not many make an effort to understand their legal obligations.

The recalcitrant developers are influenced by the likelihood that overburdened civil servants and lazy law enforcers will not catch them flouting the law, the severity of the penalties notwithstanding. They are even willing to take the chance should they be cited, that they will not be successfully prosecuted.

Conflict of interest

There is a very real possibility that there could be conflict between the objectives of the developer and the declaration of the architect.

Because of the contractual nature of their relationship, the architect can be "influenced" to comply with the developer's demands, by way of a threat of damage to his professional reputation or the absence of future work opportunities. The architect, after all, is just another agent of the developer.

However, punishment after the deed is done, if it comes, will not alleviate the problem. Effective monitoring and enforcement at the work-site has to be carried out if false declarations are to be detected and those responsible, punished.

The cost of false declarations will be high on house buyers. Among their burdens are:

  • Repairs and remedial works. If these need be done, they will delay completion of the unit;
  • Repair costs and expenses will have to be borne by buyers;
  • Legal and other costs will be involved in holding the professional concerned accountable;
  • The value of the building can decline;
  • There could be some financial and emotional impact on the health of the buyers; and
  • Most buyers, as time has shown, would not have the stamina and resources to seek claims and compensation in a court of law.

It is the house buyer who will have to suffer the wrongdoings of wayward professionals. The Architects Act 1967 and the Architects Rules 1967 are not there to protect house buyers but to de-register architects and bar them from practising in the event of professional misconduct.

Therefore, how would such punishment serve house buyers suffering the consequences of premature certification, non-adherence to, or compliance with, approved plans, shoddy workmanship and sub-standard finishing?

Aggrieved buyers wanting redress from wayward architects can only take them to court and must be prepared to pay the legal fees and costs.

Public interest

Where there is an element of bias, the Government cannot, as a matter of public interest, allow private sector interests to rule. Local authorities set the conditions for development approvals and are therefore responsible for the enforcement of those conditions.

This is why, we maintain, local authorities should retain responsibility for enforcing the UBBL and the issuance of CFs, since they are in the position to monitor compliance from the moment building plans receive their approval.

Check-and-balance

Removing the last tier of verification without a check-and-balance mechanism in place could give errant developers and professionals a free rein to act in their own interests. Regulations work best when there are effective monitoring and enforcement procedures.

The Government itself should deal with problems within its departments, such as inefficiency, delays and corruption. It has already established "one-stop centres" to facilitate approvals from the various agencies and this set-up is also in force at the local authority level.

The UBBL has been amended and a "14-day rule" has been put in place to ensure that local authorities approve CFs within that period, failing which the CF application is "deemed to be approved".

The procedure for issuing CFs was designed to ensure that housing units are completed according to specifications provided in the building plans that were submitted for approval beforehand, requiring that the units be in a habitable state.

Removing this last tier of "check-and-balance" will give the "professionals" empowered to certify a building fit for occupation, free rein and total control.

Having promised the people a better public service delivery system, should the Government now take a step back and pass on this task to others?

The Housing and Local Government Ministry should have ample cases - and grounds - for a case against surrendering the power to certify housing as fit for occupation to the agents of developers.

The pitfalls faced by consumers in buying a product that is just a plan - as our sell-then-build system of housing delivery provides for - have long been acknowledged by many, even the market players.

House buyers deserve a better system of protection for their hard-earned money as their fears are real. The welfare and safety of the majority of house buyers should not be sacrificed for the sake of convenience, for this would only serve to work in the interests of a minority that will stand to gain even more, to the detriment of society at large.

 

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