Buildings expert: Stricter building code has led to unfounded panic ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Summer houses built before 1995, which predominate in the Tallinn commuter belt, often need permits for being reconstructed. Such permits are often lacking
Summer houses built before 1995, which predominate in the Tallinn commuter belt, often need permits for being reconstructed. Such permits are often lacking Source: Enno Raag, 1971 (Estonian Museum of Architecture).

Confusion over building register and building permission requirements caused a panic towards the end of last year, with the regulations following the emergence of the current building code in 2016 requiring some relaxation, according to a Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications buildings expert.

False information that failure to enter a building in the building registry by December 31 2019 led to a wave of panic, and floods of calls to a hotline set up by the registry, which is under the economic affairs ministry's purview, as well as many more to local governments.

The fear of being fined was milked by would-be service providers set up by those wishing to exploit the situation. While it is true that from the start of this year, all buildings are required to be entered into the national building register (EHR - link in Estonian), with local governments obliged to keep records up-to-date, no fines were in the offing, and attempts at intimidation were without grounds.

However, this had some effect on the organization of the registry data.

"January 1, 2020 clearly caused a wave of panic for people," said Taavi Jakobson, of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications' building registry.

"The phone calls cooled off after January 1, however; for example, there has only been one call so far this year. This is good news, because plenty of people were worried. At the same time, there are ten more people who don't call, but who are worried, for every person that does," he added.

Jakobson added that the number of calls coming to the registry hotline were a fraction of those reaching local governments, however. 

The EHR also issued a document, circulated both on its website and via local government sites, aimed at reassuring people that fears over fines were unfounded.

Jakobson also conceded somewhat of a schizophrenic situation, where on the one hand, improvements in data management and registry content helps local governments plan better – for instance when reviewing heating or sewage networks – but on the other, has caused distress in the process.

A whole new niche emerged on the back of the new building and planning code requirements, which spread false information that the state was likely to penalize residents of propoerties of more than 20 square meters who did not register their items, and offered to carry out the necessary paperwork as a paid service on the back of these hollwo threats.

"Looking at the permit process as a whole, there is no enforcement action by the state, nor should there be a permit issue. The state can't tell a citizen that they have to end construction they have started with," Jakobson said, adding that buildings with permits issued for a limited period are an exception.

Two types of permit

An authorization for use ("kasutusluba" in Estonian) permit is required for buildings erected after 1995, under the current regulations, with the rules for buildings constructed after July 2016, when the current building code came into force, even more stringent.

The actual figures of permits issued last year were relatively comparable with previous years, Jakobson added, with a little over 18,300 authorisation for use permits issued, with 27,100 building permits ("ehitusluba") approved over the same period.

Most densely populated part of country most affected

A much higher proportion of authorization for use permits were added in Tallinn and Harju County, the most populous region of the country, at two thirds (8,500 use authorization permits compared with 11,000 building permits). Nationwide, the ratio of use authorization permits to building permits was more like one third.

Part of the reason for this is that a far higher turnover of real estate transactions in Tallinn and Harju County necessitates a larger proportion of authorization of use permits – which are a requirement from most banks before issuing a home loan.

"The state has no coercive measures, then, but the market regulates itself nicely," Jakobson claimed. In other words, while many required permits for older buildings are lacking, until people come to buy and sell, this can often go under the radar.

"If you want to sell your property, and have the authorization of use permit, it is a sign that the building requirements have been met and it is safe to live there," Jakobson explains.

"On the other hand, we have had a lot of problems recently with banks requiring authorization for use permits where this is not possible, such as those built during the Soviet era. Concepts like the authorization of use permit didn't exist [then]; use of buildings was taken on via an inventory report ("inventariseerimisakt" in Estonian), he added.

An added factor is the large stock of Soviet-era summer houses in Harju County, many of which have been reconstructed or transformed into year-round dwellings, requiring the necessary regulations be met; this also adds to Harju County and Tallinn's distinctiveness, Jakobson said.

Jakobson also said that the newer regulations could require some relaxation. Legal analysis due in November this year should assess whether all the documents currently required by applicants for authorization of use permits are justified in all circumstances or could be waived in some situations.

"In the longer term, there are plans to amend the building code to make it more comprehensible to citizens and local governments alike. A reasonable balance needs to be struck between safe building requirements and excessive market restrictions or bureaucracy for the citizen," Jakobson said.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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