The red tape challenge

Planners may not be popular right now, but they at least have some defenders, if only their own trade associations. No-one at all seems willing to stick up for regulators – the government has even launched an official Red Tape Challenge website, on which anyone can name bits of regulation that should be modified, scrapped or kept – with a presumption in favour of scrapping “burdensome” regulations.

So far this experiment in popular democracy has put paid to obligations on landowners to report grey squirrel sightings, and rules about the safety of prams and pencils.

So far, so gently amusing. But on the 12th January it became housing and construction regulation’s turn to face the Red Tape Challenge, which could signal an onslaught on ‘burdensome’ requirements to provide windows in new homes, or gas safety checks for tenants. All regulatory systems tend to grow, so those on housing and construction could probably do with some spring cleaning – but those rules were invented for a reason, and most of those reasons still apply. If the market could be trusted to put not poisoning people above profits maybe a bonfire of red tape would work – but that’s a big if.

The least regulated part of our housing system – the private rented sector – is precisely the bit where the worst standards are found, suggesting to some that we may need more regulation rather than less. But landlords complain that there are already far too many bits of legislation that they have to comply with. Research commissioned by the Residential Landlords Association recently claimed that the cost of regulation (and taxation) was so high that landlords hardly break even.

So who’s right – or is it possible that both sides have a point? As with planning, we have lots of different bits of regulation that landlords must comply with – in other words, lots of red tape – but the system as a whole leaves tenants woefully unprotected and insecure. In this situation, it must be possible to come up with a solution that works for both sides: a simpler, streamlined regulatory framework that reduces the red tape for landlords while giving tenants a better deal, more security, and predictable rents. If we set the central rules of the game better, maybe we won’t need so many rules to deal with problems at the edges.

Even most of those ridiculous rules aren’t so silly when you look into it: who knows how to tell which new pram is likely to collapse half way across the road? The Pencils and Graphic Instruments (Safety) Regulations 1998 were introduced to protect people from being poisoned by heavy metals in pencil coatings – which sounds rather less amusing. So as the Red Tape Challenge turns its spotlight on housing, maybe we should show those regulations some love.