24 May 2010

Balkanising the Building Regs

I’m getting hacked off. Again. What’s got my goat this time? It’s the building regs, and the fact that not only are they constantly changing but that we have in our nation three different versions. And this is about to become four, as Wales is set to rest control of its building regs from England very shortly. So it will no longer be the “England & Wales” building regs.

Now I am sure that this gives the politicians in Cardiff a warm glow as its seen as yet another step towards devolution. Like…“We can’t raise our own taxes, but boy can we introduce a few new building regs.” And I happen to know that Wales is going to take this opportunity not only to translate them into native Welsh, but to green them faster than England — as if this is a competition!

But what actually happens is that it creates confusion. For users, for manufacturers, for practitioners. And for journalists writing about these matters.

I can remember sitting in a seminar in Ecobuild this year listening to some guy from the ministry going on about the forthcoming changes to Part G, the water regulations. He mentioned that bath taps are going to have to be thermostatic in future, but that it had been decided that other taps and showers would be left uncontrolled. Then he added that in Scotland, more taps have to be thermostatically controlled. I duly noted this and thought to myself that I was somehow lucky to have such an important and useful piece of information related to me. Not many people would know this.

But just how different? Could I actually be arsed to go and check this out? Well, no, not really, because the very big chances are that I will never ever be involved in installing bathrooms in Scotland. And that whilst a few of my readers might be, I sort of object to having to look up such obscure data on the off chance that some of them might find this vaguely useful.

The truth is that I really don’t want to know about the differences between the Scottish and English and Welsh building regulations. Not to mention the N Irish ones as well. Life is just too fucking short for all this. It’s bad enough having to write about building regulations at all, without having to go all anal and smug and saying “if you think that’s draconian, you should see what you have to do in Scotland” or “whilst in England they have to do x in 2016, in Wales they are going to have something similar (never identical) in place by 2012.”

Who cares?

What we should be moving towards is a pan-European building code. After all the laws of physics are no different in Sicily. The climate and the customs may well be, but the codes are capable of adapting to this very easily. We do it in the UK with our rain exposure maps which show just where you can and can’t install full fill cavity wall insulation. OK, we don’t have big earthquakes here, but there’s nothing stopping you having a section for building in quake zones, and even translating it into Welsh if it makes everyone feel better.

OK, I accept that such a project would be many years away, but for Wales to take off on its own and start up with a new set of regulations seems to me to be moving in completely the wrong direction. The only reason for Wales to have separate building regs is to differentiate themselves from the English. But what is the point of that? If they really wanted to differentiate themselves, why not say “OK guys, we appreciate the power to change our building regs, but lets put common sense in front of small town politicking and lets stay with the one set we already have. We can call them the Welsh building regs, but in reality they will be identical to the current England & Wales version.” Which, ironically, is what the Irish Republic chose to do many years ago, despite having achieved full independence.

What’s doubly weird about all this is that, politically, I fully support the break-up of the UK into separate nations, and the closer integration of us all into Europe. So you could argue that I am being thoroughly inconsistent here. But maybe not, because I also like the idea of a common currency, even though it’s currently in big trouble. I certainly support any moves towards a common set of building regulations. Balkanising the regs is bad news for all of us.


  1. I think Pan European Building Regulations is so far out of the realm of do-able that even the Lib Dems would not be in favour of it. :)

    But I do agree on the UK - it makes sense to get together and come up with a unified system.

    The annoying thing that I've found is that here in Scotland the building regulations aren't published in the same way they are in England. England has a website where you can look at PDFs of the building regs. Scotland only publishes vague documents that make no concrete statements and just allude to other standards. And if you speak to the building standards people, they will make hand-waving statements about how there's no rules, you just have to 'meet the standards' in whatever way you want that will satisfy your council.
    Oh, and the British standards referred to aren't available anywhere for free. Supposedly libraries in my city used to provide them, but they don't any more.

  2. This is the best blog post I've read from you Mark and on a subject dear to my heart.

    Devolved nationalist control of Building Regulations is nothing more than idiotic when you look at the bigger picture.

    The reasons regs are devolved seem to me to be:
    - Self promotion of certain industry figures within Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; and
    - Nationalist capital to be made from claims such as 'Scotland's buildings are better than England's'.

    I find this very sad when you consider the comparatively poor resource allowed for the creation of new Regs in Scotland. Those in charge, in this case the SBSA, may think they are smarter and can introduce better Regs but in reality they offer a bastardised and sub-standard set of Standards. For an example of this you could review Scotland's pisspoor attempt to adopt the EU Building Energy Labelling Directive.

    On a day that spending cuts were announced across the civil service would it not be better to have a common set of standards and allow businesses to work smarter?

  3. AnonymousMay 24, 2010

    Ideally, yes pan-European building regulations would be a good idea. However, actually making the change would be a nightmare, I fear.

    If things worked sensibly then the result would be the intersection of the existing rules - after all, if a rule wasn't obviously necessary in Bavaria then why would it be necessary in the Highlands? From what I've observed of similar transitions in light aviation, though, the actual result would be more like the union of all of the existing rules.

    Maybe we can get John Redwood to clear out a lot of the irritating details in the Building Regulations while he's about it. If all countries did that then maybe there'd be a convergence on regulations that are actually useful.

  4. This is slightly depressing, but not really surprising. Politics is about power and devolved politics is about exercising devolved power. I suppose to the policos in Cardiff the Building Regs are as good an opportunity as any.

    But there is another sense in which Building Regs have got closer to politics. At one time they were uncontroversial and essentially about function. For example, how big a hole you can have in a brick wall without it becoming unstable. However, particulaly in the last 10 years, the regulations have become politicised in the sense that they attempt to make housebuilders do things that the government of the day regard as 'a good thing' like fit disabled access.

    More topically politicians have used part L to show: 'deeply committed', 'tackling climate change', 'new technology', 'leading the way', 'vote for me', etc. What sort politician wouldn't want to control something like that?

    Of course, the side effect is that the regulations get bent out of shape and become confusing, contentious and less useful, but hey, that's politics.

    Regulations are about reducing choice. That's what they are for. There would be no point in having a regulation that said that 'you can do this or not as you like'.

  5. The changes to Building Regs that the Welsh are taking on, now that they can, have substantial and valid objectives, that go far beyond provincial pride, and appear to have wide support which is lacking in olde England. It's strange that, in this 'greenish' column, everyone's overlooking the Welsh determination to 'go green' as fast as possible and not be held back by England's glacial rate of change. It's incredible that we aren't applauding that. And what about Eire, also based on English Building Regs, but in the current round of revisions leaping straight to where England hopes to get in 2016. Wales plans to achieve that by 2013. Incidentally, the Scottish Building Regs organisation won the contract to develop and draft Eire's current update.

  6. Tom,

    You've missed my point. If Wales wants to "leap ahead of glacial England", let it do so via incentives. Building regs are meant to be a minimum standard - and having four different sets creates nothing but confusion.

  7. AnonymousMay 26, 2010

    Is this really a green building column lambasting green ambition? DCLG is full of cretins, biding away their time until retirement, and contracting out all their decision making to obsequious consultants. The Welsh Assembly have recognised this and want to move forwards and stop being shackled by idiots.

    The devolved nations are often used as a test bed for new ideas (e.g. free prescriptions, the smoking ban). Developers are forever complaining that the world will end if building regulations are tightened up. If a higher minimum standard for building regs is demonstrated as possible in Wales, then England will be dragged kicking and screaming along behind.

    Confusing to have different standards in different nations? No, not really. If your building is in Wales, you follow Welsh regulations. If your building is in England, you follow English regulations. Why is that difficult? Or can't architects read maps?

    Maybe the welsh are just bored of being patronised.

  8. So put yourself in the position of a manufacturer looking to produce Part L compliant kit - windows, walls, anything requiring a jig. You can just about plan for changes in advance, but then you find that Wales and Scotland have different requirements coming in on different dates. That's really helpful, isn't it?

    And put yourself in the position of an architect working across borders. Do you really want them to waste time getting up to speed on different sets of regulations?

  9. Does the end user get any input to this process at all? Maybe to decide how high he'd like the power points or maybe how hot his bathwater is? No?

    It seems to me that building regulation has become awfully authoritarian and strayed way outside what is necessary for a sound or even an energy efficient home

    How is it that we seem to have accepted that housing is now essentially a government matter to be decided in a sort of Dutch auction between competing jurisdictions to see who can be most prescriptive and reduce individual choice to the minimum in the shortest possible time.

    Anon commented:

    "Maybe the welsh are just bored of being patronised."

    Maybe they are - I know I am.

  10. Maybe this should be seen as part of the breakup at last of the English Empire (which both preceded and outlived the British Empire RIP). It's typically English to believe deep down that the English way is the proper one, which the subject natives will of course kick impotently against, bless 'em. Signed Tom Foster, English to the core but mainly of Scottish blood, mother an O'Brien (the tribe that sided first with the English).

  11. AnonymousJune 01, 2010

    What you're describing is just one tiny aspect of the lunacy of the devolution processes that have been going on in the last decade or so - pointless duplication of bureaucracy for its own sake.

    You can guess who's paying for all this nonsense, directly and indirectly. Hint -it's not the Scots/Welsh/N. Irish!