How I became a Building Inspector and why I left

Note: many of the UK public still refer to a ‘building inspector’ though since the 1970s their formal title has been ‘building control officer’.

After leaving university I joined Royal Borough of Kingston upon Thames (RBK) as a maintenance surveyor. Initially I joined a team responsible for school building maintenance, then moved on to maintenance of social services buildings. I worked alongside some great people who nearly fifty years on I still fondly remember. But our overall boss was quite the worst person I have ever worked under. Being torn to shreds (usually with no justification) in front of your workmates was a regular occurrence. And yet – Stockholm syndrome at work? – when he called me in and told me that to broaden my experience I was to be seconded to Building Control for three months I was apprehensive about moving into the unknown.

How wrong I was! The atmosphere was so different. After my first day over dinner – I was still living with my parents – my mum observed: “I’ve never heard you talk about work with such enthusiasm; I think you’ll end up staying there”. How right she was! At the end of my secondment my temporary boss, Ken Beer, Borough Planning Officer, offered me a permanent position, along with a salary increment. I said that I would be more than happy to take the job with no increment but he insisted. When I told my old boss about the offer he exploded with rage, accusing me of ingratitude, underhand behaviour, disloyalty and the rest, adding that he would be going to see the Borough Engineer (my ultimate boss) to have my move stopped.

Back from his meeting he called me in and told me that despite his efforts my transfer could not be prevented: to his chagrin there was apparently a provision in the ‘Purple Book’ (local authority employment terms and conditions) that stated that your existing manager could block an intra-LA transfer BUT only if it didn’t involve a salary increase. That was why Ken Beer had insisted on me having the increment.

With my month’s notice served I went back to Building Control where I was to stay for eight years. RBK had been formed in 1965 as a merger of three local councils: Kingston, Surbiton and Malden and Coombe (M&C). Building Control might now occupy one office, but worked as three largely autonomous teams, as if amalgamation had never happened. Each had a District BCO, Assistant BCO and a trainee. Overseeing these was Peter Fuller, Principal Building Control Officer, who exercised a benevolent oversight over the office, largely leaving each District BCO to run their section as they thought fit. I started as M&C assistant, moving up to District BCO a year or two later. Each of us three had a very different approach: Paul went by the book, insisting on plans being correct in every detail; Peter, older than us, relied on his ability to get things right on site (which he invariably managed) and my approach was somewhere in between.

Several happy years passed during which I decided that I could see myself being M&C District BCO for the rest of my working life. I got to know my patch intimately and took a great interest in its history. Then the time came for Peter Fuller to retire. His replacement had a very different, hands on, approach to management. Before too long he said that things could not continue as before, observing (with some justification) that when someone submitted a plan, they were submitting it to RBK and for the response to be quite different depending on where within the borough the site was, was unacceptable. He produced a document setting out exactly how we were to do our jobs.

Us three District BCOs were self starters, each used to running our own shows, and under this new regime the job satisfaction disappeared. Within a relatively short period we all left. In my case it was to embark on nearly forty years of self employment. I joined RBK with the expectation that I’d spend my working life in public service. Instead, my ten years there were just the warm-up act!

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