Update: I have added/corrected some details about the particular regulations in question

I mentioned India’s Permit Raj recently. While the Indians have dismantled quite a bit of their Permit Raj, bureaucrats throughout the developed world have seen it as something to admire and emulate.

Take, for example, the land of free enterprise that is Australia. A friend I know there is trying to build a house – or rather to be slightly more accurate to not build a house but take a perfectly good existing house and move it a few hundred yards instead – and he’s encountered enough red tape to tie up an entire national government. The following is my edited version of some comments he made elsewhere

Essentially in Austrialian housebuilding you need a permit for everything, and there’s a huge amount of rentseeking – from the permit issuer to the people you have to use for compliance, down to the materials (I can buy a superior -far superior- sealer from the UK – but it is not Australian Building standards approved. So I must buy a Chinese product which is approved, only rated for two years – as opposed to 10 – at twice the price). The country has enjoyed a period of unprecedented wealth, where this was sustainable, but there are limits.

The house I want, as it stands today, is (legally) habitable. It’s a house as far as the law is concerned, livable in by people. It’s on stumps (short concrete pillars), wooden and moveable. But if I move it… it stops being a house. It is now a shed, and not habitable. It’s the same building. The new stumps would be engineering designed and compliant (unlike the present ones -built before this law). But the wood is old Aussie Hardwood – hard and good for 200 years but not stamped ‘Approved’. Unlike treated pine which is stamped “approved” but which is good for 20 years – maybe, indoors. Trust me – I spent $13,000 trying to comply.

Curiously part of what we’re seeing is that central government did make some effort to make it less onerous, more affordable, less ridiculous. Unfortunately they weren’t prepared to ‘let go’ completely. So instead they handed huge amounts of discretion to individual councils and basically untrammelled power to building inspectors – in the apparently sincere belief that that would make it easier. It doesn’t, because if there is anything worse than a big bureaucrat – it’s a small, petty one given power.

Fortunately there is a loophole. If it is on a road registerable (not registered, just registerable) frame (meaning wheels, a drawbar if it has no engine, and under 3.5 meter between wheels) – it’s completely outside the housing rules. The requirement is actually quite specific – they COULD be registered as on-road vehicles/trailers. But as long as you could register them (assuming replacing say brakes), you can build anything you please, with any materials, without having to get it inspected (unless it goes on the road – and then it’s not the building they inspect, it is the chassis and wheels and lights etc.) You don’t need planning permission, you don’t need building permission, you do need 220 volt installed by an electrician, and your plumbing done by a plumber – BUT no plans or permits or inspections of those – which believe it or not cuts the cost to a fraction. If I wanted to do any alterations to a house, the limitations – and permits and expense are vast. But if it is registerable… I just do it. So: I have the same house – on a steel frame, which will have posts so the wheels are airborne – at literally $150 000 (by the time we’re all done) less than it would cost me to not have it. I’m still going to have to spend 14-17K on sewage – because I must IMPORT the “right kind” of rocks but at least I don’t have to rebuild the entire house.

He’s had rants elsewhere about other rules that he’s had to abide by, even though they make no sense. Rules to do with wildfires, for example, which make sense in dry, mainland Australia, but aren’t quite so relevant to his location on a small island:

It’s not that Flinders doesn’t get dry or doesn’t have dangerous fires. It’s that they ignore the laws of physics… when it suits them. The clear area is dictated by the type of vegetation adjacent and the slope. BUT only the slope DOWNHILL of the house. That makes sense because hot air rises, fires burn hot and fast uphill, generating their own wind. They do burn downhill – but that’s (physics again) burning into the wind, not with it. It’s slow (by comparison). Basically for a wind to drive a fire down a hill depends a) on the slope b)on the length and height of the slope (the Benoulli effect once again works against the fire) c) having one hell of wind in the right direction. Now they consider the slope BELOW, the immediate vegetation, (but not what is beyond it) and that’s it. ABOVE is in their calculations – in denial of physics considered and calculated as flat. So while my below – where I have a single band of trees hiding the site and 200 meters of hard to burn grassland – I need 20 meters. On the side 15 meters (flat) and above – where the slope is far steeper and climbs another 300 feet (100 M) also 15 Meters. Hell, 5 meters up the slope you’re above my roof line. Oh and the prevailing wind blows up the slope. The house site basically gets no other wind as the hill shields it. But them’s the rules. And of course – utterly worthless. Because the rules apply ON house inspection (before occupation). After that date – you can plant or let grow anything you please, right up against the house. This is Australia. Our -highly flammable- trees grow fast. A foot and half a year and more when little. In 4 years they’re well over head height. In 10 over roof height. Now, being me I have a fire cleared area of 25 meters below, with 25 m of bare rock isolating that tuft from the side 40 to the side (lee of prevailing wind) and 60 to the side which gets the prevailing wind. But I thought 10 would be ample above me, seeing as my water tanks are between me any radiant heat. But no. Thems the rulez.

Now, let us be clear here, neither he nor I are against safety regulations that make sense. When I saw the building plan for Grenfell Tower, I could immediately see one major problem:

If you look at the floor plan you can see that there was a single central lift and stair shaft. Get that filled with smoke and flame and there’s no way out. On the other hand a building that has a stairwell at each end of a corridor gives you a far better chance to get out since it is a lot less likely that both stairs will be impassable.

You will never see such a design in Japan because while Japan is pretty lax about quite a lot of planning things (zoning is not really a thing for example and except in special historic areas there are few rules about appearance), they are dead serious about building safety. As far as I can tell, in Japan it is illegal for a multistory, multi-tenant building (not sure what the minimum floor count is) to not have at least two separate stairwells. That sort of planning requirement is one that I’m fine with. However not all regulations are so sane, and as noted above, in places where discretion is handed to individual inspectors and local jobsworths, these sorts frequently insist on conforming to standards that make no sense simply because they can – and because they don’t have any incentive to apply the rules flexibly. In fact they probably have a strong negative incentive in that if their name is on the official bit of paper that granted a waiver from some regulation and the building then has a problem they stand to get reprimanded whereas if the building doesn’t get built they don’t. There’s a similar dynamic with all sorts of rules where the law says an official “may” grant a petitioner the right vs one where the official “shall” grant it unless certain conditions are met.

Fortunately in this case it seems there are loopholes. In fact in many ways he’s benefiting from two. The first loophole – about ‘moveability’ – is pretty specific. It is also, I suspect, going to go away once enough jobsworths realize that it is there and that they are missing an entire class of things to ban. Hopefully they won’t realize until after this particular house has made it to its new location with exciting unused wheels and all.

The second is the general grandfathering in of pre-existing stuff before rules were made. Depending on the rule this can be good or bad. For example people are a lot clearer on the safe ways to distribute electricity and thus electrical safety rules are much tighter than they used to. Anyone who has ever unearthed (pun intended) mid 20th Century electrical wiring (or for that matter current developing country wiring) knows why there are rules that tell us not to do that. And likewise, after every earthquake in Japan you can look at the houses with issues and see that they are almost always the older ones built before there was proper understanding of things like landfill or heavy tile roofs. But there are also plenty of cases where something old that wouldn’t pass current standards is perfectly safe and habitable and, as in this example, where old building materials are better than current ones even though they don’t have that official seal of approval.

In fact Dave says that loophole one is almost certain to be tweaked so that the regulation is “MUST” be registered than COULD, which will of course cost more money and they will likely put in various rentseeker ‘safety’ rules as well, but existing properties will almost certainly be grandfathered in as there must be 2-3 million voters (mostly poor, but still voters) living in these having dodged a lot of the expense and actually thus owning a home (Australian home prices are ridiculously high). It will be fascinating to see whether this tightening of the loophole results in pressure on the rules for real homes to be relaxed or not (I’m going to go out on a limb and guess no).

It used to be that “everything not denied is permitted” and there weren’t many things denied. Now it’s more like “everything not permitted is denied” and there aren’t many things permitted. And of course the only way to get something permitted is to suck up to some petty bureaucrat and get his official stamp on a piece of official paper. No wonder we don’t talk about “civil servants” anymore…