Main contractors and subcontractors make all kinds of rash promises during the courting stage. Then they quarrel. A new toolkit from the National Specialist Contractors Council aims to keep things sweet to the end

This toolkit is the best I have seen. It’s got spanners for turning things around, wrenches for wriggling things free and chisels for carving things out. It’s even got a mallet for thumping and a stick for poking. Every main contractor will want this toolkit, but it’s not for them. No, this is a toolkit for subcontractors.

Last week, the National Specialist Contractors Council published the Specialist Contractor’s Toolkit. The idea is to remind us that the putter-upperer firms actually do the work on site; that the subcontractor is the most important outfit in UK construction. And if main contractors want to do a decent job for their employer, it’s not a good idea to bamboozle the people who do the work. On that note, I like the way the toolkit starts: “Main contractors’ enquiries ask for the moon on a stick.”

True, but in that courting stage of “getting into contract”, it appears from the contract at least that Ms Subcontractor was willing to give Mr Main Contractor the moon … and the stars on top. Part 1 of the toolkit is all about courting. There is a first-class analysis of what the main contractor’s enquiry hopes the subcontractor will fall for. In short, the toolkit recognises that of the mass of bumf in the enquiry, the specialist won’t have time to read it all. Then the subby is cutely told how to get shot of the hidden scorpion on page 81. Damn it, the toolkit tells the subcontractor how to bid.

"Here you go love"

"Thank you my darling"

The second part of Part 1 provides the tools for those famous “negotiations”. Do get the toolkit for this bit about the pre-contract meeting. The subcontractor is urged to ask himself: am I being railroaded or bullied? Part 1 then says: “Don’t sign the minutes of the pre-contract meeting before you leave.” Cool off, go away, draw breath. A bright orange toolkit page even suggests wheezes and weasel words in those pre-printed, pre-contract questionnaires, which eventually entitle the other fellow to eat the subby.

Part 1 doesn’t stop there. It explains the legal tools (without legalistic language) about crystallising the contractual agreement. The tool asks: what actually is the work to be done? Next it asks: what actually is the price, what actually are the attendances (those bits included free of charge) and what actually is designed by others?

It asks when the work will start on site and when it will finish. Yes, it wants the dates. It goes on to ask if the work is phased and, if so, what are the dates of phases? Wow, it even asks for lead-in times for material procurement and dates to go in the contract.

Having lovingly promised each other the moon in contract, Mr Main Contractor and Ms Subbie start arguing. The toolkit
aims to stop the rows

Having lovingly promised each other the moon in the contract, what happens next? The couple start arguing, says the cynic. Well, the toolkit aims to stop the rows. Having organised the deal at Part 1, the idea is to use Part 2 tools to manage the deal. These tools are for recording and reporting, and for those confounded changes to the programme. There are tools to manage quality, tools to manage variations, tools to manage the accounts, for interim applications, for valuations and for money due dates. A tool even exists to identify when the cheque is to arrive.

And if Mr Main Contractor is not minded to take my advice and get the toolkit, he should think again. There are two pages headed: “Top 10 tricks for avoiding or delaying payment”. The toolkit is talking about ducking and diving, and main contractors need to read it.

Part 3 covers the period when the work is finished.

Now comes the bit concerning the final account. If it all goes wrong, there are tools galore.

This impressive endeavour is a collaboration between solicitor Wedlake Bell and a team from the National Specialist Contractors Council: Justin Perry, Jo Simcock and Suzannah Nichol.

This is no blunt instrument, just a set of tools to make building better. Main contractors want better subcontractors; the days of screwdrivers for screwing are long since gone.