Tuesday, December 03, 2013

You Need a Building Permit for that Tent

Things we used to do without a second thought while running a concert or a festival event are now subject to inexplicable amounts of red tape and compliance costs. Along with the now obligatory food handling certificates, bar licences, OneMusic licence and public liability insurance; we now find (after 39 years of doing the same thing) we need a building permit to erect and use our marquee. What follows is an open letter from Camp Mother as he set about the endeavour.

Seán Manning
December 2013

It was a surprise to discover that we needed a permit from the Council to put up a tent. Admittedly, it is a big tent. We were hiring it, as usual, for an annual music festival, as we had been doing for decades, and were going, as usual, to get it erected by the hire company at the Scout camp near the city for an event over New Year. On my first visit to the Council, on 28 November, I discovered that the regulations had not changed, they just had not been enforced in previous years. That was about to change.

A very helpful chap confirmed the need for a permit and gave me a neat package of forms to fill in, telling me I would need a fire siren and exit signs and emergency procedures. He also said that with an expected 20 working day turnover, I was out of luck if I wanted it before Christmas, and the Council were closed then until 6 January. I must have looked a bit odd at that point so he suggested that I fill in the form anyway and talk to C, a senior person who would help with any difficulties. I decided to talk to C before I left the building, so I asked the helpful receptionist and was invited to take a seat while C ‘came down’. I thought the fact that he lived upstairs was good. C was indeed helpful, telling me to get the application lodged and it would be alright. Someone would come and inspect the site beforehand. The forms, I discovered, were designed for builders, with lots of check - lists about compliance codes that made little sense to an amateur wanting to put up a tent. Nevertheless, I filled in what I could and returned to the Council office.

On the second visit I found that I had filled the form incorrectly – I was the ‘agent’, not the ‘owner’ – and had to come up with a figure for the value of the building work. I kept thinking, ‘It’s a tent, I don’t know what it’s worth,  we are hiring it’. The helpful chap suggested the cost of the hire would do, and also said I needed plans of the site. The site is enormous – 35 hectares – so we decided that a view downloaded from Google Maps might serve. I also needed to show the location of toilets,  permanent and temporary,  and indicate whether they were wheelchair accessible, and show where the nearest boundary was. I thought of going out to the Scout camp with a very long tape measure struggling through the bush to find the nearest fence, but I was calmed by the suggestion that I just hazard a guess. Off I went again.

On the map I found on the internet, I drew the tent as a tiny square in the middle of a small paddock in the middle of 35 hectares of bush. I used a Google calculator to estimate that the nearest fence was two hundred meters away. Back to the Council,  feeling pretty good, with form, map and EFT-­-POS card in hand. It was Friday at 2.30. I had an appointment with the dental hygienist at 3.00. I thought half an hour should do it.

The pleasant receptionist instructed me to sit on the bench – a couple of single-­- bed sized black vinyl covered surfaces. Maybe people needed to lie down sometimes, I thought. There were people in business-­-like conversations at all the desks. I sat down beside another chap who was waiting. ‘Musical chairs’, he said. I asked what he meant. He asked if I had one of these– indicating a yellow sheet he was holding. I said no, and he said then I had to go to that desk first, get my yellow slip, then queue for this desk (the one he was waiting for),then queue for the cashier. ‘Musical chairs’, he said again. He was very calm, and obviously had been here before, and I felt thankful that I had sat beside someone who knew what was what. The purpose of the vinyl beds was becoming clear. After waiting 15 minutes for the first desk, realising a lot more than half an hour would be needed,  I left, intending to return later.

After the dental hygienist had cleaned me up,  I returned to the Council for the fourth time, with a renewed sense of purpose. The first desk was free. I sat down and a very helpful lady went through my form and my map. She said it was good, but I needed two copies. Possibly noting a look on my face, she offered to make another copy. It was only ten pages. Then I learned that we would need a site inspection after the tent was erected, the exit signs and fire alarm installed. When I said we were putting the tent up during a holiday (I don’t know why it is strange to put up a tent in the holidays, but in this world, it is) there was a consultation with colleagues and I was informed that the inspection would go ahead but it would cost extra. I also learned that there would be a permit, another certificate when the site was inspected, and a third ‘Compliance Certificate’ when it was dismantled.

I got my yellow slip and the next desk was by that time free too, which I thought were good signs – I was reading signs by this time – and this was so that the application could be lodged. First inspection, then lodgement, two tasks, two people, two desks. This lady, just as pleasant and helpful as everyone else, calculated that the cost would $425. No, wait a minute,$435 – an extra $10 for the photocopying at a dollar a sheet. I thought, the library next door charges 20 cents, but I didn’t say that. I though it would not be useful. My EFT-­-POS card at the ready, I was directed to the cashier – ‘Just pop over there and say who you are and they will give you a receipt and then you can go.’ Three tasks, three people, three desks – inspection, lodgement, payment. Musical chairs -­- I was getting the hang of it. As it turned out, I knew the cashier and it was nice to be recognised and see a familiar face.

Actually, everyone I met at the Council was friendly, helpful and encouraging. I don’t have a bad word for any of them. The thing is, I agree with exit signs, fire alarms, all that. These things are useful, they really do make everything safer and sometimes save lives. I have no problem obeying a few simple rules. All I needed was information about what to do. The permit, however, does nothing to improve safety. By the time I left the Council office that Friday, I had spoken to 6 different people over four visits, and spent several hours getting information, filling in forms and waiting. None of this improved anyone’s safety. As to the cost, of course, the time and energy of all those genuinely helpful people costs money. I won’t carp about the copying or the extra for the inspection because it is a holiday. I don’t know why these regulations are now being so enthusiastically enforced – there has been a change in attitude. Maybe Christchurch has something to do with it. We live in an age of increasing regulation, and maybe that is a good thing, but really, 6 people, four visits, four hundred dollars, for what? Give me a list of things to do, by all means come and see that I have done them, but the permit, the certificates, the forms, none of that adds to anybody’s well being.

Having learned a lot I emerged from the building that Friday afternoon to find I had a $40 parking ticket. At that point it seemed the most natural thing in the world. As did another form – for public use of a building -­- which arrived by email the following Monday with a polite note saying I should have been asked to fill it in when I was there. I filled it in and sent it off, noting that it added no further information to what had already been supplied. I don’t yet know how much the site visit will cost.