If the chancellor thinks that his backing the Quality Mark will rid the industry of cowboy builders, he’s obviously got a lot to learn about cowboy customers

Chancellor Gordon Brown supporting the Quality Mark (2 July, page 15) is a mixed blessing. Although it’s good to have the chancellor’s personal attention for once, the downside is the Treasury’s record of excluding smaller firms through restrictive PFI, prime contracting and Procure 21 contracts. These are the very same smaller firms that the government needs to sign up to the Quality Mark.

As well as the current Quality Mark initiative, I was involved in the original “Beat the Cowboys” working party. We came up with several sensible proposals, which were arbitrarily vetoed by then prime minister Margaret Thatcher, for her own political reasons.

Gordon Brown, however, has a compelling political reason to be seen to make the Quality Mark work – a manifesto pledge. He will only achieve that with the co-operation of the sector his department has been trying hard to drive out of business.

There has always been a vibrant cowboy sector feeding off the legitimate construction industry. It appears to be unaffected by the erratic attentions of the police, Trading Standards, Inland Revenue or Customs and Excise – if indeed they are bothering.

An ex-senior Inland Revenue manager told me during the first working party’s deliberations that revenue-compliance officers avoid visiting the real cowboys. This is because instead of being plied with tea in a warm contractor’s office, the cowboys make them stand in a cold shed while their car tyres are slashed outside.

We will never be able to beat the cowboys unless society is prepared to tolerate fascist-style policing by the enforcement agencies – and they were willing to do it. That’s because for every cowboy builder there must be dozens of cowboy customers expecting a cheap under-the-counter deal as they know their builder isn’t paying tax. Cowboy customers actively choose to avoid legit constructors because they also know that regulation compliance, providing warranties, paying PAYE, charging VAT, and so on, make them more expensive than a bloke with a mobile who pays for nothing (including the materials he’s stolen from the nearest construction site).

We will never beat the cowboys until society is prepared to tolerate fascist-style policing

That’s why so few legitimate constructors have signed up to the Quality Mark. Unnecessarily increasing the costs of the good guys only plays into the hands of the baddies and their tax-avoiding backers.

An urgent and complete U-turn is required from the Treasury. They are going to have to be nice to the smaller constructors to tempt them into the Quality Mark by making it simpler, less costly and more attractive. We are black and blue from beatings with the regulation stick, we now need a good helping of carrots. For instance:

  • All members of approved trade associations with appropriate membership qualifications, chartered building companies and those with full quality assurance certification should be registered automatically;
  • Registration should be free, to recognise the service provided to the government;
  • There should be no warranties required other than the optional trade association’s forms;
  • Entry qualifications should be kept to the basic minimum;
  • Workmanship standards need to be compliant with BS8000 – the BRE’s overkill superstandards should be abandoned.

Another encouragement would be the complete dumping of the CIS registration scheme to encourage business start-ups and more Quality Mark constructors to move between domestic and contracting sectors. But by far the best incentive to encourage substantial numbers of legitimate constructors to join the Quality Mark would be for the Treasury to concede positive discrimination towards small firms, by reserving all smaller public sector contracts for smaller companies – provided they were signed up to a constructor-friendly Quality Mark.

This would push up the numbers to a respectable level as well as strengthening the training base of the whole construction industry – and help Gordon Brown achieve his goal.

Colin Harding is managing director of Bournemouth contractor George & Harding