Thursday, October 10, 2013

Septic tanks, swimming pools and the burden of compliance

From time to time, I have complained about the growing burden of regulatory compliance in Australia. It doesn't do me any good, but I keep complaining. Often, the public discussion focuses on business red tape, but the direct burden on the ordinary Australian citizen is substantial and growing.

Fear of risk is a key driver. Risk must be avoided or at least the burden of risk shifted. The second is often more important. I say this now because I have just come across two further cases in NSW, both involving registration processes.

The first concerns septic tanks. All septic tanks in NSW must now be registered. The reasons for this are explained in this official brochure. It sounds quite reasonable, doesn't it? Overflowing septic tanks may cause problems in, for example, rivers. So people must register them with their local council. Council may charge a fee.

This story from the Armidale Express is an example of what is happening on the ground. The Armidale Dumaresq Council has an estimated 2,200 septic systems in its boundary. Seven hundred people have so far been notified of the requirement, with 1,500 to go. In the adjoining Uralla Shire a similar process is underway for the 1,600 on-site sewerage management systems in that Shire.

Note that the official brochure says that councils may charge a fee for registration. The new registration process is quite costly for councils, so both Armidale and Uralla are charging a $30 fee for registration. That is a cost to residents of $66,000 in the case of Armidale, $48,000 in the case of Uralla Shire.

The story doesn't end there. Councils may inspect registered systems to ensure that they are working properly. For may, read must, If councils do not put an inspection scheme in place and there is some form of incident, that may create a contingent legal liability for council in addition to the owner of the septic system. To avoid this risk, councils will have no choice but to inspect. Uralla Shire has already announced that it will charge $100 for inspections.

There have been cases where imperfect septic systems have created health problems. But, to my knowledge, there has not been a proper cost-benefit analysis of the cost of those problems as compared to the cost of the new regulations. 

Swimming pools is my second case study.

In NSW, previous legislative changes require all home swimming pools to be registered with local councils by 29 October 2013. This is the official site for the changes. Look at the photographs of kids who might be saved from drowning. Aren't they cute?

Now there are just a few problems with the changes. One is that the definition of a swimming pool includes any structure, temporary or permanent, with a water depth greater than 30cm. So it covers (among other things) waders put up in the backyard on a hot day. Now these must be registered and comply with all the fencing regulations now mandated for pools. Ugh? It gets worse.

Under the new laws, the owner of the pool must register the pool, but the owner of the property is the one who receives notices and is liable for fines, If you own a house for rent, you are now liable should your tenants fail to register their temporary back-yard wader. Ugh?

What do you do? If you don't already have a pool on your property, you need to amend the conditions of the standard lease so that tenants are banned from doing anything that might breach the new legislation. You don't actually have to enforce it. You just need to shift the liability away from you.

Now in defence of the legislation, surely child deaths in pools are a significant problem, Isn't the NSW Government right to address it?  This is where facts come in.

According to NSW statistics, an average of six NSW children die in private swimming pools each year. That's right, six, and the number has been stable for a number of years. Now we have a change that will complicate the lives of all NSW residents and cost millions in compliance cost that, at best, might reduce child mortality by a maximum of six per annum.

I don't think that's very sensible. Do you?               


Anonymous said...

My property has had two septic tank inspections in the now 11 years I have been residing here. The two tanks were (I assume) put in by the original owners well over thirty years ago, and on handover one of the pieces of paper I was given was the septic tank 'authority' - so I guess they must also have had inspections before I purchased. (What I'm suggesting is the council inspections have, in my shire, been in place for many years)

Anyway, in a spirit of co-operation, on my next afternoon off (scheduled mid-November) I shall fence my septic tank for the sake of the children. Now about my large spring-fed dam...


Jim Belshaw said...

I don't mind inspections that reflect local conditions, kvd. It's blind regulation I object too.

I'm glad that you are looking after kids, too, as a public citizen. But you don't need too. In fact, if you are a swimming pool owner, it would appear that all you need to do is to turn your pool into a pond and you are exempt!

Anonymous said...

Just shifting for a moment from the point of your post - which I agree with - I'm now thinking that drowning deaths, however sad or tragic, are no less a death from 'natural causes' than the child who dies from an inoperable brain tumor.

It's a bit like the American angst about gun control laws; they seek to control the means of death rather than address the very human causes of same.

With pools, these tragedies are 'caused' by the understandable, at times maybe unavoidable, human failings of inattention, distraction and/or lack of care. The pool is the means of avoidable death, but not the cause per se.

As with guns, so pools. Even the official reports acknowledge that the number of deaths by pool drowning has remained fairly steady, despite approximately 7,500 new pool constructions in NSW every year.

So it isn't the 'weapon' - more just the person wielding it, I think. And how do you regulate that?


Jim Belshaw said...

One of the problems, kvd, is that there is no scope for rational reviews in these things.

I have particular problems with the US gun legislation. I disagreed with the Howard gun legislation, but think that the US position is just too extreme. Some tightening of US gun laws could have some social payback.

By contrast, the NSW swimming pool position like other NSW examples has no useful payback. Based on the stats, and assuming that the registration provisions were to save every young person who presently drowns, we appear to be looking at six people children saved per annum. That won't happen, of course.

I haven't calculated the costs of the measure, but of the top of my head I am guessing that the best case scenario is a cost of perhaps $60 million or $10 million per life saved. That's actually crazy stuff.

As you note, human failings lie at the heart of some of these things. You can educate for this, but you can't legislate.

If I went to someone and said that you have $60 million dollars and I want you to find the best way to spend it to reduce child deaths, I find it hard to believe that they would come up with swimming pool registration!

Anonymous said...

Bureaucrats love to commission economic evaluations of swimming pool fencing. Like prevention of obesity studies, pool fencing evaluation has become an industry with a life of its own. However, I know of no quality study which shows that swimming pool fencing confers a net benefit. It has nevertheless become a boon to the fencing industry. Pool registration, inspection and compliance enforcement, moreover, is people-intensive and creates public sector jobs (as does septic tank registration). Perhaps as well, many inner-city dwelling public health bureaucrats have an aversion to the bourgeois notion of a young family growing up with a backyard pool.


Scott Hastings said...

At a remote rural facility i sometimes work at we have a portaloo. Port Macquarie-Hastings Council insisted on the inspection and $100 fee "to verify there was no septic attached"!!

Anonymous said...

I remember when as a child from a very early age we were taught to swim. Every Wednesday it was off to the bathes for swimming lessons. Rivers, storm water drains and pools were not fenced. So the sensible thing to do was to teach a child to swim not turn every pool into a fortress.

I also remember when we were taught how to cross the road. At least twice a year a Policeman or Policewoman came to the school teaching us road sense. You may remember Jim "Look to the right , look to the left then look to the right again". No need for signs penalties or zones that make you drive at half the speed of smell.

And if you want to talk about risk we used to walk along the tram line on Anzac parade to school, it wasn't fenced. Nobody to my knowledge got ran over by a tram. The same Anzac parade that had bonfires along it on cracker night back when we used to be allowed to buy fireworks or jump on a push bike without being required to wear an AS/NZS 2063:2008 standards helmet.

Are kids just dummer these days? encouraged to take no responsibility for their actions or is the country being run by the Royal College of Surgeons and various actuaries?

Augustus Winston

Anonymous said...

Port Bigtown runs a large LGA, and the county council is stacked with Port Bigtown tourism people, and whenever someone from outside of Port Bigtown files an application to build a new tourist facility, it mysteriously gets refused on a technicality.

Sound familiar?

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, DG, that regulation creates its own economic self-interest groups. I would be happier if there were more cost benefit studies, especially in the regulatory arena, but they have to be carried out in an objective fashion, not as hired guns.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good lord, Scott! Now once you have to do to register, you have to inspect!

Jim Belshaw said...

I do remember all those things, Winston. Your last question captures it, but you need to add lawyers!

Jim Belshaw said...

Port Bigtown does sound a tad familiar, anon.

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