A Scotsman's home is no longer his castle

23 August 2021

10:15 PM

23 August 2021

10:15 PM

If you suggest to an English politician that your home should be your castle to use as you like, he will probably nod. Tell that to a member of the SNP ruling class in Bruntsfield or Kelvingrove, however, and they will take any such view as a challenge to be overcome.

A couple of years ago, following a public consultation answered by a whacking 122 respondents, the SNP quietly changed Scottish building regulations. The new rules allow the government at a future date to order every homeowner in Scotland to install smoke detectors and other safety devices of a type dictated by it, whether they liked it or not. That date is now set for February 2022. Last week Scots householders were given their orders in the unequivocal, if bossy, style typical of the new model Scots bureaucrat.

Every living room, hall and landing must have a smoke detector. Not any smoke detector, mind you. It must either have irremovable tamper-proof batteries or be wired in by a professional electrician so you cannot switch it off. And if one detector goes off, all of them must, to prevent you sleeping through them. Your kitchen is to have a heat detector and any room with a fireplace (even unused) a carbon monoxide alarm. Already have perfectly good smoke detectors? Sorry: if they aren’t exactly right you must upgrade. For an average house this costs about £220, assuming you do the job yourself: for many, it will cost more, and tradesmen come extra. What if you don’t? The local authority can in the last resort intervene and make you do as you are told.

All this is presented as sweet reasonableness with a dash of paternalism. It nevertheless represents a degree of state interference that ought to worry anyone.

For one thing, it sets personal choice at nought. Everyone knows smoke and carbon monoxide alarms make houses marginally safer. Many decide to fit them. But there are downsides. If you live in a Georgian terrace with a fireplace you may prefer period features undefiled by the kind of unsightly plastic growths you see every day on your office ceiling, even if it does mean a marginally increased risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you smoke (still graciously allowed at home despite the nannying tendencies of the SNP) you may prefer not to hazard an ear-splitting shriek if a whiff goes the wrong way; if you are cooking for a dinner party in a small but hot kitchen, the last thing you want is to have to break off to silence a heat alarm. The choice of whether to take such risks in your own home should be yours, not that of some government functionary.

Moreover, the whole project is seriously infantilising. Tamper-proof smoke detectors in offices or aircraft lavatories are one thing. But coercing people to install and pay for devices in their houses which they themselves are barred from controlling amounts to treating the homeowners of Scotland like a gaggle of naughty schoolboys who need keeping in line by a benevolent headmaster. Admittedly the Scottish government has a long tradition of treating adults as children, not to mention children as adults (witness its insistence on allowing schoolchildren over 16 to vote): but that doesn’t make it a good thing.

And why are they doing this? Ostensibly, to prevent a repetition of the Grenfell Tower debacle. A worthy aim indeed: but hardly convincing. Apartments in residential tower blocks are overwhelmingly tenanted, which means they come under landlord and tenant law, which already has its own rules on smoke detection systems. Furthermore, when it comes to fire safety there is, one might have thought, precious little in common between hundreds of tenants in an apartment block potentially competing for limited means of exit and the proprietor of a suburban bungalow on the outskirts of Arbroath. To treat the latter as if they were the former is, to say the least, curious.

Will it even be effective? Probably not. Local authority housing officers don’t have any reason to pay regular visits to owner-occupied houses; and one suspects that despite the Scottish government’s Celtic keenness for ordering people around, it will not engage in a programme of spot checks (even if it has the legal power to, which seems doubtful). The only people likely to be caught out by this will be those applying for permission to alter or extend their houses, who may be faced with a bill for a few hundred pounds to put their premises in order to the satisfaction of the local authority.

This is still a worrying assault on the rights of private property, but don’t imagine it will be the last. The next is already in sight, discreetly buried in last Friday’s agreement between the SNP and the Greens (the latter an overwhelmingly collectivist grouping with even less love for private property rights than the SNP). In three years’ time, the government commits to require any home that is to be transferred, sold or improved to reach a particular standard of energy efficiency — and if it is not to force it by law to be brought up to that standard there and then. This is a standard roughly half the homes in Scotland do not currently reach. Furthermore, achieving it is likely to cost not hundreds, but many thousands of pounds to implement, and often too to require obtrusive changes such as the fitting of double-glazing in inappropriate contexts.

Remember Pitt the Elder’s words? ‘The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail; its roof may shake; the wind may blow through it; the storm may enter; the rain may enter; but the King of England cannot enter’. Ironically Sturgeon might find much to agree with here. The Scottish housing stock is indeed in a lamentable condition and no doubt any restriction on the power of the King of England will be welcome. But Pitt said nothing about the rights of entry of Scottish petty officialdom. To the would-be technocrats and micromanagers who now make up the Scottish government, that no doubt sounds just fine.<//>

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