As Construction Confederation past chairman Alan Crane made clear a little while ago, with comments that I am sure would be echoed by every section of the construction industry: “The perception of the general public of construction as a whole is inextricably linked with that of cowboys and sharp practice.”
As far as 95% of homeowners are concerned, their image of the industry is conditioned by the actions of cowboys – either what they hear about or what they see on television. They don’t distinguish between different parts of the industry, and it is the biggest single thing that determines the industry’s image.
The latest annual figures from the Office of Fair Trading compiled from the caseloads of trading standards officers show that complaints relating to home repair and maintenance have become the fastest-growing source of complaints.
The government has accepted the suggestion of the cowboy taskforce that there should be a quality mark scheme for construction. It will, however, be a voluntary scheme and one that will have to be funded entirely by the industry.
As both the Federation of Master Builders and the Construction Confederation have observed, if their members are obliged to pay a hefty sum to join the quality mark scheme, it simply enhances the cost advantage many cowboys already enjoy through non-payment of VAT. A statutory scheme, however, would send clear signals that cowboy builders are an issue that the government is determined to tackle.
When people take a package holiday and book airline tickets, they almost certainly do so through agents that have an Air Travel Organiser’s Licence, membership of which is a legal requirement. Every gas installer is obliged by law to be CORGI registered, and the Health and Safety Executive is responsible for maintaining a register of approved and qualified gas installers. What logic could possibly underlie giving consumers legal protection as far as travel agents are concerned, or statutory protection when the gas fitter visits, but offering them no protection when they get involved with builders?
My bill will be a prompt to government that this is an area where consumers are looking to it to take a lead
In survey after survey, consumers have made it clear that they want to see a government-sponsored approach to cowboy builders, and one that has the force of law. On 27 October, I shall introduce my Building Regulation Bill, which will seek to combat cowboy builders through statutory regulation. It will use the Building Act of 1984 to extend the Building Regulations so as to establish a new category of minor works. This will provide a framework for the regulation of builders, and it will be linked to professional body or trade association membership and third-party inspection.
Work that is at present “controlled” in the construction of new buildings will also become “controlled” when carried out through repair, maintenance or improvement to existing homes.
There will be no requirement for work carried out by quality mark-registered builders to be notified. Likewise, there will be no requirement of notification for work carried out by the owner of the house, so those involved in DIY will not get caught up. But work carried out by anyone who does not have a quality mark would require notification under the Building Regulations and would be subject to building control, either by the local authority or by approved inspectors.
This approach gives clear statutory underpinning to any quality mark scheme, and, of course, gives a clear advantage to those who have the quality mark, and thus an incentive to achieve quality mark status. It also places the onus on local authorities to police the activities of unqualified builders more effectively.
In fact, I suspect if it had sufficient political will, the government could already use the Building Act 1984 to extend the Building Regulations in this way without needing primary legislation.
My bill will also seek to extend the statutory right to adjudication as provided for by the Construction Act 1996 to include the domestic sector. This would offer consumers a quicker and less expensive method of resolving disputes.
Tony Baldry is Conservative MP for Banbury and was construction minister in 1990-1994.