A new grading system aims to take the muddle out of hotel ratings, writes Mark MacKenzie

A long-awaited new system for grading the standard of Britain's hotel and guest accommodation is set to make finding the best accommodation for your budget a lot easier, according to a recent report by the consumer watchdog, Which?

The aim of the new National Quality Assurance Standards is to provide a clearer picture of the facilities and service available at a given establishment by replacing a system most in the industry accept is confusing.

Until now, assessment criteria have varied not only between the different home nations, but between assessment bodies within those domestic borders. "Under the [current] English system, you can get a very good idea of the facilities provided by a hotel but not necessarily the level of luxury it offers," explains Paul Blackman, author of the report which appears in this month's issue of Holiday Which?

North of the border, by contrast, Scotland's tourist authority has tended to focus more on the warmth of the welcome and the degree of comfort afforded to visitors. Add to this mix a range of highly popular independent guides published by the AA and, until relatively recently, the RAC, and finding any sort of consensus on your potential digs can prove a hit-and-miss affair.

The new scheme was first introduced by VisitBritain, in conjunction with the AA and other agencies, at the beginning of last year. It sets out a uniform set of criteria that will be used by everybody, with hotels divided into five categories, from formal city accommodation to smaller family-run establishments. Guest accommodation, meanwhile, will have six classes, including b&bs and restaurants with rooms.

One of the principal changes to the classification of smaller venues will be the demise of the diamond rating system, which will be replaced by the more readily understood star system, currently used only for hotels.

With hotels rated between one and five stars and b&bs one to four, if all goes to plan, the scheme will cover all accommodation within the British Isles by January 2008. Much, however, remains to be done.

With a number of establishments still to be assessed under the new scheme, there is reason to suggest that the start date may be a touch ambitious. "If, following an assessment, a venue is downgraded for any reason," explains Paul Blackman, "providers will then have a year from the assessment date to bring their properties and services up to standard. This, inevitably, could lead to delays."

And with no legal obligation to comply, why should accommodation providers co-operate? "It is fundamentally in their interests to play ball because tourist boards are often the principal marketing medium," he says, "particularly where smaller providers are concerned."

Despite other changes, says Blackman, respective awards for excellence will be retained both by the AA and national tourist boards. "The idea is that when you visit the website of the various tourist boards, accommodation will be categorised based on luxury and service, rather than by hotel or guesthouse." And should you choose to take your break across the Irish Sea, Discover Northern Ireland, the region's tourist authority, will incorporate its own statutory minimum standards into the new system.

Another change for smaller providers will be a tightening of the rules for describing an establishment as a "small hotel", the principal differences between them being that, theoretically at least, a b&b is a private house with a maximum of six paying guests and provides only breakfast. While the new system should benefit everybody there are anomalies. For instance, those venues downgraded from small hotel to b&b will be allowed to retain the word "hotel" in their internet address, so as not to be discriminated against when potential customers use "small hotel" as their reference when using online search engines.

Whether or not the scheme will provide consistent opinion remains to be seen. Paul Blackman says the jury is likely to remain out until the system is fully operational.