More likely, the cowboy builder isn't like this at all. I recently came across a civil servant turned builder. He had taken early retirement, liked to do a bit of DIY and before long was building an extension on the end of a house. He hadn't a clue what he was doing but it brought in a bob or two. In another case, a career soldier left the forces and, being a handy sort of fellow, took to building. Anyone can pop along to B&Q, buy a bath and shower and install it, can't they? Soon, he was doing the odd £50K house extension. These people are not cheats; they actually believe in themselves. But they are incompetent and will reduce the customer and themselves to tears. Call them cowboys if you like.
Stent Foundations chairman Tony Merricks is also chairman of the Cowboy Builders Working Group (I bet he loves that title). His final report has now been published. He reckons he has a remedy for this nuisance end of building. He is recommending to the government a quality mark scheme, together with a certification scheme, together with a financial protection mechanism for customers, together with dispute adjudication (hitherto not applicable to the consumer), a builders disciplinary tribunal, a compulsory standard form consumer contract, and, to top it all off (and this is a killer) VAT on domestic work of 5%. Merricks and his working party have been very ambitious, haven't they?
Merricks must have realised that cowboy building is not one-sided. Cowboy building is all about the black economy. It is very tempting for Mr and Mrs Consumer to pay cash for their new patio and escape the 17.5% VAT. This customer usually deserves a cowboy builder. It is also true that the bright idea to escape VAT often comes from the customer. “How much for cash?” is ever so ordinary. But if Merricks can persuade HM Treasury to reduce VAT on domestic repair maintenance and improvement work from 17.5% to 5%, then he is John Wayne, Wyatt Earp, Roy Rogers and Trigger rolled into one. He can be my next nomination for a knighthood, a peer of the realm. No, damn it, he must be king.
But it is not only HM Treasury that is a mild hurdle. There is another. There will be deep resentment from pukka builders. These are the folk who will easily qualify for this new certificate or validity mark. These people do good jobs. They are tradesman builders who have crossed the desk and formed decent little outfits. If they can easily qualify, they ought to have no worries. Not so. The worry comes from the disciplinary scheme.
Spiteful customers are not rare. Mr and Mrs Consumer are well-known for being professional claim-makers
Seemingly, the consumer customer will be entitled to not only sue or adjudicate for an alleged breach of contract but to make a complaint to the certification body. If the complaint is upheld, the builder could have his trading certificate suspended or removed altogether. This is a double whammy. Worse still, it is one huge weapon for Mr and Mrs Consumer to be able to report a builder in the hope of torpedoing his livelihood. Apparently, the disciplinary committee can sanction the builder for failing to comply with the contract.
So, an allegation of defective or late work or “not ensuring customer satisfaction” could lead to a loss of licence. This is not something done in court, it is done by some committee. But if the builder is pukka, why should he be worried about disciplinary committees? The reason is two-fold.
First, troublemakers and spiteful customers are not rare. The domestic market can be vicious. Mr and Mrs Consumer are well-known for being professional claim-makers. And, if they can threaten all the time-wasting and stress of disciplinary proceedings, it will be grist to their mill. The second worry is the people who become members of such disciplinary bodies. These are powerful tribunals, often recruited from the untrained by the untrained, to decide on the livelihood of people within their own peer group. “Let's have Fred on the committee" is how the tribunal is chosen. Fred gets to be a member just because he seems like a decent bloke.
Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator specialising in construction. You can write to him at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple, London EC4 7EU, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.