‘Cutting the red tape’. It’s a phrase that slips easily off the tongues of politicians, and yet there’s still always too much of it around and our lives seem to be bedevilled by red tape at every turn. Self-builders know this better than most — they have to grapple with all manner of unfamiliar authorities, agencies and regulations.
So let’s cut it. Question is, where do we start? We begin by making a list of where and what the red tape is. For self-builders, it goes something like this: obtain planning permission; possibly liaise with conservation officers; deal with the Environment Agency, the Highways authority and sometimes others if planners insist; development obligations — many councils now require money for planning permission; Building Regulations; Code for Sustainable Homes — more councils are insisting on it; warranties and site insurance; mortgage and finance matters; VAT reclaims; service connections.
The list could go on. It’s a nightmare for many self-builders, especially if they’ve never dealt with such red tape before. I still meet those who’ve completed their first build and only have the vaguest idea that Building Regulations and planning permission are not the same thing (they aren’t).
Now, the only way of avoiding any or all of the above is to employ people to do it for you, be they architects, main contractors or project managers of some description. And because it takes a lot of time, it costs money – your money – as you still have to deal with multiple agencies to get their permission or approval.
So, how do you go about cutting the red tape? Well, you can tinker around the edges. Planning permission can and should be set to get a lot simpler (and there are signs that it will). You might also be able to simplify the confusion that exists between bog-standard Building Regulations and the various warranty schemes out there that are often insisted upon by the finance providers. But in truth, it’s hard to come up with an easy method of just slashing through all this bureaucracy. There is a danger we could end up making things even more complex.
But help may be at hand, because the situation we have gotten ourselves into seems to be almost uniquely British. Other countries take a far more relaxed approach without, it appears, any loss of quality or control. In particular, I like the system which seems to operate in Germany and France where the architect, or suitably qualified project manager, running the job is able to self-certify. For instance, whilst a new house invariably requires some sort of planning permission, the details of how this is put into practice – in, for example, the brick colour or the materials used for the windows – are left to the architect/project manager to decide. And again, if they are suitably qualified, they are also deemed to be competent to construct a house which meets the regulations, and satisfies the warranty providers and mortgage lenders, without having a succession of people traipsing in to make their own inspections.
Now, such an approach would not be without its difficulties. Handing so much power to an individual working for a self-builder might bring with it the temptation to not only shave costs – which is the whole point – but to cut corners as well. However, the way around this conundrum is to make sure that the architect/project manager supports their decisions with an insurance-backed warranty should things go wrong, or should neighbours complain. This is more or less what happens at present, except that it gets handled by many different agencies — which is why it has become so complex and troublesome. The current system is based on multiple levels of mistrust, with everyone appearing to check and counter-check the other parties. How much simpler would life be if we entrusted our building work to a competent individual.