‘Bonfire of standards’ may cut access in new buildings

Picture of a newly built house on the right, a house being built on the left, and construction materials in the foregroundGovernment orders building standards review | Politics | The Guardian

The government has ordered a review of building standards regulations, with a view to reducing the number of regulations, ostensibly to facilitate a revival of the construction industry. While no concrete proposals have been put forward, according to Paul King of the UK Green Building Council, “everything is up for debate”, and the “specific themes” being debated are “energy, water, security, accessibility, and even the amount of space available in new homes”.

The intention seems to be to use a cut in regulation to stimulate construction growth for its own sake. These regulations have been around for years and certainly they did not coincide with the crash in the industry around 2008: the industry was booming for years when the economy was good, and crashed when the economy did. Clearly, regulation did not do the industry much harm then. What the economy does not need is an explosion in jerry-building, because companies will not want to use the new offices built because they are of poor quality, expensive to heat and inaccessible for anyone not in perfect health. As for housing, people might not have any choice.

Accessibility does not just benefit people in wheelchairs, as I’ve said on this site before. I work as a driver, and yesterday I was delivering stationery, including pallets of copier paper. Level access means I can get a pallet-load off the back of a truck and into a building quickly and easily, and then go on and serve at least one more customer that day than I would otherwise have done. The building I delivered to yesterday in west London did not have a loading bay; the paper had to be delivered through a narrow fire door at the side, with a step up from road to pavement and another up into the building. Ever tried lifting a sack barrow with eight boxes of copier paper up two steps? I needed help up the second. And it took ages as I needed to do four runs. Perhaps the front of the building was accessible, but a disabled person might have needed a level fire exit as the front might not have been if a fire was in the way. (Going down a small step, although possible, is dangerous for some people in wheelchairs, if they have osteogenesis imperfecta or something similar.)

Energy efficiency is something that is of huge benefit to householders and business, because an energy inefficient (e.g. poorly insulated) house is expensive to heat and results in more gas or electricity being used. A time when energy bills are rising year after year is not the time to be discussing reducing energy efficiency regulations for buildings, especially homes. The necessity of vehicle energy and carbon efficiency is not disputed, because it causes pollution which is bad for health as well as being more expensive to run, but the research and development on better quality engines has already been done. Insulation is a cost in every new building, and reducing this cost means they can build and sell more quickly and cheaply (or at least more profitably). It’s a benefit to them, not to whoever will eventually own or use the building.

Regulations mean buildings have to be built for the benefit of the owner and user, not the construction industry. The only way there is going to be a boom in construction is if there is land released for building much-needed new homes, and if the economy shows significant growth. It was reported yesterday that British families do not want to live in new-build homes, because they are often too small, without enough storage space or natural light, and inflexible to changes in family circumstances, so there is a case for changing regulations and increasing standards rather than reducing them. There is an obvious humanitarian reason for mandating disability access in new buildings: it means that physically disabled people are more likely to be able to work and thus less likely to be dependent on others, or the state, and more able to find a place to live and less likely to have to live with their birth families, or friends, or in a ‘home’. This is, of course, irrelevant to the business of rewarding political donations with friendly policies and juvenile anti-regulatory free-market politics.

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