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Bob the Builder Wants You

It seems a bit odd that the construction industry is going on a spending campaign to persuade smart young graduates to go into the trade. I am surprised that young people really need persuading. In this age of job offshoring, redundancies in the City and suchlike, it actually makes a lot of sense to get a skill in an area that cannot be easily outsourced. Many people in the construction, plumbing and electrical trades seem to be well off, far more so in fact than some young graduate toiling away in an office job. And thanks to new British regulations designed to prevent homeowners from performing any DIY activity more complex than install a shelf or rewire a plug – for their own good! – demand for construction and home maintenance professionals looks set to go on rising into the distance.

Anyone with a supposedly “secure” job ought to think about adding another, non-outsourceable, skill. One thing I always notice about British plumbers, for example, is that they all drive Jaguars or Mercedes. It is not rocket science to figure out why.

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36 comments to Bob the Builder Wants You

  • JSAllison

    And it’s rather heretical to be of the opinion that perhaps college and the life of a cube dog isn’t necessarily the best choice for all.

    The downside in the trades is that generally a period of apprenticeship is involved where you get to find out just why you’d rather not be Baldrick.

    Having said that, I’ll be pushing for my grandkids to learn to create wealth with their hands in at least one trade. It’s an argument I’ve been advocating for some time.

  • Jacob

    Being a plumber, or house repairman in general, has another great advantage: most of your work is paid in cash, no receipts and no taxes.

  • I wonder how many times over my father would have been fined for all the work he’s done on his house. Off the top of my head, he’s installed a sprinkler system, wired all the house’s smoke detectors into a single circuit, installed outdoor speakers, installed outside lighting controlled by motion detectors, build a gazebo, built a potting shed, built an awning over the side door, paved a foot path from the side door to back porch, and installed/wired/piped a fish pond with waterfall, installed indoor lighting, installed indoor & outdoor ceiling fants… the list goes on.

    And by British law, he couldn’t have legally done any of this?

  • Euan Gray

    And by British law, he couldn’t have legally done any of this?

    I don’t think there’s anything in your list that cannot legally be done by the DIY home improver.

    Much of the comment on the building regulations is histrionic overreaction. The truth is that you are supposed to engage a qualified contractor for:

    electrical work in a kitchen or bathroom (but not elsewhere in the house);

    installation of high pressure hot water systems (which also need water board approval due to contamination regulations);

    installation of windows (very few people do this DIY anyway).

    You can pretty much do anything else you want yourself, provided you observe certain water supply rules and, in the case of electrical work, you have it inspected by a certified contractor.

    Additionally, it is an offence to interfere with the unswitched power supply (from the main fuse into the meter), since this is the property of the supply company. Structural alterations to the building need planning permission and engineering approval, and certain non-structural alterations (such as dividing rooms, opening rooms, etc) may need planning permission due to specific requirements for ventilation, illumination and emergency escape. Depending on the size, nature and position of the work, some alterations which change the appearance of the building might need approval.

  • Snide

    Much of the comment on the building regulations is histrionic overreaction.

    Typical Euan “the state love us” Grey remark.

  • Euan Gray

    Typical Euan “the state love us” Grey remark

    Instead of making glib comments, perhaps you could point to the regulation which shows I am wrong?

    EG

  • Johnathan

    Euan, the idea that you cannot install your own windows is weird. I am genuinely baffled. How is this a safety issue? How is this a matter for government? I must have missed the “Window Safety Threat” moral panic.

    Most of the other issues (gas and electricity work) come down to common sense and the incentive effects of insurance premia. Many insurers won’t cover you if you have not put in systems by using a professionally qualified engineer. I know because I did just that.

  • Euan Gray

    How is this a safety issue?

    It isn’t, and AFAIK nobody has ever said it is. The justification is environmental, in that one can supposedly only be sure of reaping the benefits of eco-friendly super-efficient double glazing if it is properly installed, which in turn is supposed to require properly trained people.

    Similarly, high-pressure hot water systems aren’t regulated for personal safety reasons per se (although you can get explosions if you really screw up the installation), but more to prevent the possibility of hot water entering the distribution mains (it’s not a good idea to let this happen). If you put one of these things in yourself, not only will your insurance be void but you’d likely be prosecuted by the local council and/or water authority.

    a professionally qualified engineer

    The misuse of the term “engineer” is something that has always annoyed me. Unless you have a degree in engineering, you are not an engineer. Perhaps the appropriate term in this case would be electrician, gas fitter or plumber – but these people aren’t engineers. And serving an apprenticeship is not a professional qualification – something like CEng is a professional qualification, but an HNC in plumbing isn’t.

    EG

  • Julian Taylor

    What baffles me is how Snide can say that Euan’s rather sensible recitation of the NHBC guides is a ‘Typical Euan “the state love us” Grey remark’. What point were you trying to make there, and did it necessitate that insult?

  • Verity

    “… certain non-structural alterations (such as dividing rooms, opening rooms, etc) may need planning permission due to specific requirements for ventilation, illumination and emergency escape…”

    You can’t change the shape of the rooms within your own house without getting government permission? Who determined these “specific requirements for ventilation, illumination and emergency escapes”? Is that a law? Is it a national law that was passed in Parliament? Which government brought it in? Do you have to go to the Taste Police department of your town hall to submit your decor plans? For “illumination”, do they frown on lava lamps? Can you choose your own front door, or does the town hall requisition an approved front door for you?

    What is it about the character of northern Europeans that they revel in such control freakery?

  • Euan Gray

    Who determined these “specific requirements for ventilation, illumination and emergency escapes”?

    Architects and builders, I believe, being consulted by the government. The rules apply to certain alterations – as I clearly said – and not all. Basically, if you are creating a habitable room (i.e. a bedroom or living room) you must provide sufficient natural light and fresh air.

    Is that a law?

    Yes.

    Is it a national law that was passed in Parliament?

    Yes. Building Act, 1984, and regulations made thereunder.

    Which government brought it in?

    Margaret “radical liberal” Thatcher’s. Hehehe.

    For “illumination”, do they frown on lava lamps?

    It means NATURAL illumination – windows.

    Can you choose your own front door

    Generally. See below.

    does the town hall requisition an approved front door for you?

    If you live in a designated conservation area or own a listed building, you may have to deal with limitations in the appearance of the door.

    EG

  • Verity

    What if you don’t want natural illumination? What if you want a meditation room? Or you’re an agoraphobic and want a nice safe room with no windows? Do you have to ask permission not to have windows in your own home?

    I know I shouldn’t be so shocked, but I’m appalled that governments are spending time making laws according themselves ever more overweening powers to determine how people arrange the interiors of their own homes.

  • jerry

    Doesn’t surprise me at all.
    There are areas in the northeast U.S. where you
    can’t do a great many things without some sort
    of ‘board’ approval (Boston comes to mind but some
    ‘homeowner associations are just as bad if not worse but they generally don’t have legal clout behind them)
    My attitude is – I’ll be d***ed if I going to ask some group of self rightous do-gooders if I can please spend MY OWN MONEY to do something to MY OWN HOUSE !!
    If others want to allow themselves to be controlled to that ridiculous extent – their loss, not mine.
    What are they going to be telling you to do or not do next ? What foods to eat and when ? How much sleep to get and when ?
    A**h**les like this will run your ENTIRE life if they can get away with it. After all, it’s for your own good and we know what is best for you.
    &diety help us.

  • Johnathan

    Verity, I agree with your fury. A lot of this sort of regulation is impertinent claptrap. Take a random example: we are told that we have to get proper “engineers” (sorry Euan) to instal windows to ensure the insulation works properly. Why? Because we need to promote energy efficiency. But if that is the case, then surely simple market forces will encourage people to put in better windows because they will make a saving on their heating bills.

    Even the stuff to do with safety can be usually left to economic incentives provided by insurance premia rather than from government rules. If a person damages a neighbour’s house by fire then the insurance claims against him and others will increasingly drive up the quality of house building, etc. We tend to forget how much insurance costs have affected such issues.

  • Euan Gray

    surely simple market forces will encourage people to put in better windows because they will make a saving on their heating bills

    A popular misconception, I’m afraid. Installing double glazing is economically senseless, since the system life expires due to the effects of solar radiation on seals and mouldings before it recoups the capital cost of purchase, never mind installation labour costs.

    I won’t bore you with the details, but I did a few calculations based on my personal situation (three bedroom terraced house with eight windows) and energy costs – basically, the price of energy would need to double or the cost of double glazing fall by 50% in order for me to actually recoup the costs.

    EG

  • Johnathan

    Euan, if your argument is correct – and I assume it is – then it shows that improving energy efficiency through better insulation is a net cost to the individual, a fact which the greenies might be rather coy about. Insulation and energy efficiency is often sold to the public as an economic benefit, so your argument is interesting.

    The funny thing is, I remember old TV adverts for double-glazing and they all claimed it would cut gazillions off our our heating bills.

  • trysca

    a few points from a professional (socially-minded) architect:

    -whatever your political perspective may be, the English Planning system is, and always has been, based upon reconciling the needs of the individual with the needs of others in a shared environment – for example,the very first Building Regulations banned the use of thatch on roofs in London after the Great Fire in 1666

    -if you are leaning on a self-installed window on the fifteenth floor which then falls onto passers-by in the street, this becomes a safety issue for both yourself and those below. (I’m sure even our transatlantic freemarket liberals will appreciate the implications of this happening)

    -The professional rates for bricklayers (1-2yrs training) and graduate architects (7yrs training) are broadly comparable at around £12-15 ph, the result of the ‘free market’ determining ‘value’

  • Euan Gray

    the English Planning system is, and always has been, based upon reconciling the needs of the individual with the needs of others in a shared environment

    Perfectly true, and this is why it is difficult to see that the abolition of ALL planning constraints is workable. We no longer live in a lightly populated agrarian society, and thus libertarian nostra which may be valid for such a circumstance may not actually hold any more.

    The professional rates for bricklayers (1-2yrs training) and graduate architects (7yrs training) are broadly comparable at around £12-15 ph, the result of the ‘free market’ determining ‘value’

    Architects can and do charge much more than this – I have seen advertisements quoting rates up to 10 times this level. I don’t think the free market has much to so with it – as with lawyers, there are some things for which one has no option but to hire an architect, and in such forced circumstances the market simply doesn’t work.

    EG

  • I'm suffering for my art

    The justification is environmental, in that one can supposedly only be sure of reaping the benefits of eco-friendly super-efficient double glazing if it is properly installed

    A popular misconception, I’m afraid. Installing double glazing is economically senseless, since the system life expires due to the effects of solar radiation on seals and mouldings before it recoups the capital cost of purchase, never mind installation labour costs.

    So you’ve basically said that this particular regulation is a pointless crock of shit that provides work for builders and council apparatchiks. Be sure to read what Euan’s saying carefully; he’s not necessarily supporting the regulations. He is giving the government’s reasons for enacting them. I think this is useful in the discussion and I thank him for it.

    I can see some justification in what you’re saying, Euan, especially the bit regarding hot water systems which seems to have merit. However there are regulations that are intrusive and should be struck down. These regard certain kinds of alterations that affect only those that live in the house concerned. The government has no business poking its nose into these kind of affairs.

  • Julian Taylor

    You should also add into that equation that, in the UK anyway, architects happen to be working in a profession that has one of the highest rates of unemployment.

  • Euan Gray

    However there are regulations that are intrusive and should be struck down. These regard certain kinds of alterations that affect only those that live in the house concerned

    My own view is that where a regulation affects only those who live in a given house, that regulation is probably unnecessary. The difficulty here, though, lies in defining when no others are affected.

    Your dodgy wiring could catch fire and burn your house down – this does happen. It’s fine if you live some distance from the nearest other house, but these days few people do. If you live in a high density area, the probability of your burning house affecting others is pretty high. Your DIY installed gas boiler might explode. Your apartment windows might fall out. Your collapsing wall might fall on your neighbour’s car. And so on. The problem which seems to elude many libertarians is that most people DO affect others even in the most trivial of circumstances. This is not least because we no longer live in spread-out agrarian communities. America, for example, is a vast country, yet over 80% of the population lives in highly urbanised areas.

    Consider energy consumption. If many people use energy with gross inefficiency, more power stations will be needed. Most people are scared of nuclear, don’t want to live near wind turbines, and aren’t too keen on being close to massive coal stations. So excessive energy consumption affects others by forcing them to be closer to power stations they’d rather be less close to. Where do you draw the line?

    In reality, one has to compromise. You want your privacy and the ability to do as you please. So do I. We each want these things without being inconvenienced by each other’s actions or inactions. Therefore, it is reasonable for me to say you can’t build a dodgy wall or or make a half-assed attempt to install a gas boiler in your house which is 30 feet away from mine. In return, you may reasonably say I cannot do the same things. Nor would either of us want the other installing dangerous wiring if we lived in apartments one on top of the other.

    ISTM that some degree of regulation is necessary in this case. Whilst I think it unreasonable to say that one should not be permitted to rewire one’s own house, I think it is quite in order to require that this wiring meets certain minimum standards for quality, safety, fire protection, etc. Most people are capable of domestic wiring, but gas installation (esp. natural gas rather than propane) is rather more difficult and the consequences of error more serious, so it seems sensible to have tighter regulation.

    EG

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Euan – many of the scenarios you’ve pointed out should really only be dealt with in retrospect after the problem’s occurred, although I think you’re right about the electricity and gas concerns. For the masonry-type jobs and the like, surely simple liability should be sufficient deterrent. If you build a shoddy wall and it collapses, you’re liable. If your window that you fitted falls out and injures someone, you’re liable. And so on. The sort of people who are going to botch a job like that would probably go ahead and do it anyway regardless of any government regulations, because they reckon they’re up to the job and they can save a few bucks – the chance of detection would probably be low, so why not? Hence the regulations have achieved little more than nothing, bar a few prosecutions of people who have decided they are skilled enough to alter their property without state intervention. Regardless of whether any incident occurred or not.

    I’d like to see how many lives these regulations actually save. I imagine it would be a small handful. A life is priceless, however society has scarce resources and these should be utilised to maximum effect, rather than squandering millions upon millions enforcing largely useless regulations regarding many types of alterations to one’s property.

  • Johnathan

    I’m Suffering hits the nail on the head (bad pun!). And I also still maintain that insurance drives a lot of safety improvements Well said sir.

    To be fair to Euan, I think his support for regulations is strongest when it applies to things like gas, which is dangerous if not handled by pros. People can and do get killed. I would never in a million years do any gas maintenance on my own. It comes down to simple self preservation.

    One point EG makes is that libertarian views tend not to work so well in a densely crowded country like Britain. I kind of understand that point but it can only run so far. When humans live close together they have to foster characteristics such as tolerance, respect for neighbours, and the like. And of course rules, both written and perhaps even more, unwritten ones, become absolutely essential.

    As for planning rules, I think some kind of controls are needed, but if at all possible they should be decided on the smallest possible scale by local councils rather than centrally. And don’t forget that our current planning system has not prevented the horrors of high-rise developments in the 1960s.

    I intend to blog about the issue of planning and property lights later on. Rgds.

  • Euan Gray

    many of the scenarios you’ve pointed out should really only be dealt with in retrospect after the problem’s occurred

    I think prevention is better than cure, especially when the probability of your actions adversely affecting others is relatively high. It’s all very well to say insurance and litigation can redress the balance after your bodged DIY has killed your neighbour or flattened his car, but when simple rules can be put in place to minimise the probability of this happening in the first place then I think this is preferable.

    It’s akin to the example elsewhere given of the man driving at 100mph on the road but not actually getting involved in an accident, thus there being no reason to take action against him. This is a stupid argument, since the 100mph driver is significantly increasing the risk to others and thus affecting their ability to enjoy the roads in a reasonable degree of safety and security. In the same way, the reckless DIYer is unreasonably interfering with the ability of his negihbours to enjoy their own property in peace and safety. It is simply not possible to have absolute liberty like this, and rules are naturally imposed, whether formally or informally, to prevent such reckless selfishness interfering with others. The issue is where the line is drawn, not whether there should be a line at all.

    It is not possible to completely eliminate risk, nor is it even desirable in a broad sense, but it is possible and desirable to minimise gross risks arising from things like poor quality building works, dangerous gas installations, etc. I do NOT want to have a high risk of being killed or injured by my neighbour’s incompetent DIY work, and if that means I cannot do some types of work myself (because he can’t either) then I consider this not unreasonable.

    If a state does not make and impose the rules, insurance companies will, and for similar reasons. The cost of permitting poor quality work is high, and comes in increased claims and payouts, depressing the profits of the insurance companies. They will minimise this effect by requiring you to have work performed by qualified or approved contractors. Other insurers will do similar things, because although they can offer lower premia and thus gain more clients without doing so, equally their profits are lower because they face greater greater payouts.

    It is worth noting that in some cases the strictures of corporations can be more severe than those of the state. There are many examples of insignificant modifications to houses and things like cars which are perfectly legal and in no way affect your compliance with the state’s rules, but which result in hefty increases in private insurance costs. Simply adding a front foglight to your car, for example, makes it “modified” and thus hikes up the insurance premium – even so, such a modification is perfectly legal and may even enhance safety. It is unwise to assume that corporations are somehow inherently smarter or more sensible than states. Although they can be, it does not follow that they necessarily will be. Furthermore, and unlike the state, the insurance corporation has an immediate pecuniary interest in restricting what you can and cannot do.

    EG

  • Johnathan

    If we adopt the preventative principle to its full extent, we would have so many regulations that life would become intolerable. It is getting pretty close to that already. The problem with EG’s fine-sounding argument is that it begs more questions than it answers. That is why I’m Suffering’s point about liability and insurance makes sense – it is based on the realisation that drawing the line is difficult and that a piecemeal approach is preferable. (There is no “good” or “bad”) here.

    “Gross risks”, for example, often only manifest themselves after a particular event. I know it sounds callous but sometimes one can only know how gross a risk is after something goes wrong. We don’t have complete foresight.

    It makes me wonder sometimes how many of our grandest, loveliest buildings would ever have been built had we adopted the cautious approach embodied in modern building regulations.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Euan – from reading your posts, I think I’ve nailed down a key point in your political philosophy; theories are fine but in practice they have to work, hence why you’re a conservative and not a libertarian. Well, the regulations you seem to support aren’t going to stop a large number of dodgy DIY-ers (and non-dodgy DIY-ers, too) from making illegal modifications. So why bother with these useless regulations.

  • Euan Gray

    Well, the regulations you seem to support aren’t going to stop a large number of dodgy DIY-ers (and non-dodgy DIY-ers, too) from making illegal modifications. So why bother with these useless regulations

    Laws against theft don’t stop all people stealing, so why bother criminalising it? Same logic.

    I said that it is impossible to completely eliminate risk. Any attempt to do this is pointless and doomed to fail. However, it is possible to minimise unnecessary risk, and that is what a sensible regulatory strategy should aim to do. This returns us to:

    theories are fine but in practice they have to work

    It is somewhat daft to institute a socio-political system simply because the theory of that system is compelling. Communism is theoretically compelling and logically consistent, but it doesn’t work (as we have learned painfully) so it should not be attempted. It is hard to understand why anyone would think that theoretical soundness is sufficient reason to institute a given political model, and even harder to understand why no heed should be paid to the practical results. Things MUST work in practice to be justifiable, however great the theory may be.

    Excessive regulation doesn’t work, as the Soviet experience shows and as trends in the Franco-German European model support. However, no regulation doesn’t work either because it too is economically inefficient, wasting resources in dealing with unnecessary failures and problems that could with relative ease have been for the most part avoided.

    Again, one cannot completely avoid the problems, but one can greatly reduce their impact. Regulating gas installations, for example, by requiring a competent installer will never completely eliminate accidents and problems, but it can (and does) vastly reduce their frequency. Thus a modest expense and inconvenience in regulation saves greater expense in lost life, damaged property and the diversion of economic potential into (literally and figuratively) fighting fires that could have been avoided.

    The sensible aim is to pitch the degree of regulation at such a level that the optimum tradeoff is reached between on the one hand imposed cost and inconvenience and on the other savings in wasted resource and expense. The optimum tradeoff is not reached at the point of zero regulation, and equally it is not reached at the point of petty regulation over every conceivable aspect of human endeavour.

    EG

  • Johnathan

    Euan, all very well to suggest that there is an optimum amount of regulation, but if you can state what that optimum is, you’d be in the running for the Nobel Economics Prize.

  • Euan Gray

    Johnathan,

    Quite correct. This cannot be done for several reasons:

    1. The economy is too complex to calculate completely;

    2. Economics is an art and not a science (however much its proponents delude themselves to the contrary);

    3. Because of the above, there are unpredictable outcomes following any variation in economic policy;

    4. The degree of regulation necessary is not a purely economic question, and depends in large part on the culture in which the economy resides.

    The sensible, conservative, pragmatic way is to identify a problem, then implement a regulation designed to solve the problem, then assess whether it actually does solve it and whether it creates unexpected adverse consequences, and finally to decide on the basis of these findings whether or not the regulation should be persisted with.

    However, that’s difficult, so what people do is identify the problem and then apply the regulation. The process stops there, and any collateral difficulties that arise, or any failure in the regulation to actually fix the initial problem, can only be dealt with by more regulation which is applied in exactly the same way.

    Other people identify the problem and construct a theory said to eliminate the problems & demand its implementation. They are called ideologues. Some of them say that the real-world assessment is irrelevant or even in itself meaningless – these are called Austrian libertarians.

    EG

  • Johnathan

    Euan, what strikes me about “pragmatic” conservatives is they hardly ever concede that regulations have gone too far or concede the considerable costs. And you suggest that the way to deal with the “collateral” impact of some regulations is to have yet more regulations. That way leads to an endless spiral, generating a momentum all of its own.

    The way things are going, we’ll soon be needing a permit to wipe out behinds.

  • Euan Gray

    And you suggest that the way to deal with the “collateral” impact of some regulations is to have yet more regulations

    No, I’m stating that this is what people do, not that this is the best way to do things.

    But it raises an interesting point – if conservatives are at fault for not conceding that regulation is excessive or counter-productive, what of those libertarians who say that there is no need to evaluate the real-world impact of their philosophy since the theory (rather conveniently, I think) states that this is not useful?

    EG

  • Johnathan

    Euan, can you actually cite (give a source) any prominent economist in the “Austrian” school (George Reisman, Hayek, von Mises, Kirzner, Lachmann, to name a few) who claimed it was wrong to evaluate their ideas by reference to what you call the real world? Hayek for instance, wrote a lot about the business cycle, a real world issue. Ditto the impact of inflation, or protectionism, or the minimum wage, or the impact of industrialisation on wages, etc. About as real as it gets.

    This is taking is off a bit from the original post, so I’ll leave it there. Plus I have more DIY to do this weekend!

  • dearieme

    When we lived in a conservation area, we were perfectly happy to be forbidden to replace our front door with some monstrosity because all the other denizens were too. And then came North Sea Gas; the British Gas contract labour found that boring through our walls – stone – was much harder work than boring through the walls of their native island (turf? wattle-and-daub?). So they took to boring through the lovely timber door frames. The first law required is that all other laws apply to government bodies too.

  • I'm suffering for my art

    Laws against theft don’t stop all people stealing, so why bother criminalising it? Same logic.

    True, however completely different scenario. Theft is a criminal act. Building a wall isn’t.

    At the end of the day, I can see we’re not going to agree on this one. I believe that the regulations you appear to support regarding masonry are incredibly inefficient – the benefit they bring is at too high a cost. You don’t seem to feel that way, and no amount of arguing from either of us is going to shift the line much.

    Incidentally, aren’t you sick of the “Communism is great in theory…” cliche. It’s not. Why is assimilating the individual into the collective such a great theory? Why should the worker run the show? I don’t think Marx’s package on paper is very compelling at all.

  • Stv

    all structural work and alterations to a house must be carried out in accordance with current building regulations. with the approval of the local planning office regarding plot, dimentions and type of building matreials used, ie brick or roof tiles to match in with local surroundings. never attempt structural work on your home without at least consulting a builder for advice. as a builder myself i have ben to see far too many botched jjobs by home owners who were not equiped to carry out the work. learning how to secure a house structure while work is done is a process which should be left to a pro. also, though it may be your home in the interest of the safety of others and yourself work must be passed at several stages then signed off at completion by a building inspector. regarding bricklayers, the standard rate on day work in £200 a day. on a price (per 1000/ m2) £1500 a week is possible if you are quick. it is a deceptivly highly skilled trade which takes years to learn and perfect. longer than any other trade.

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    MY CONDITIONS.
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