The Government and the industry have been united in the quest to stamp out cowboy builders. Last year, the cowboy working group, under the chairmanship of Tony Merricks, produced a blueprint for a quality mark scheme that would separate the reputable from the disreputable. Pilot quality mark schemes for the domestic residential sector are now running in Birmingham and Somerset.
These pilots are suggesting that, somewhere along the way, we may have lost the plot. Far from ridding the industry of cowboys, the requirements – if the early indications of the Birmingham pilot are anything to go by – will become an additional burden on respectable businesses and will be ignored by the cowboy element.
We consumers do not ask much of our builders, plumbers, electricians, window installers and roofers. We want a reasonable standard of workmanship for a fair price, and we want security in case the work is incomplete, defective or the tradesman goes bust.
A small business looking at the DETR’s assessment criteria for the quality mark must wonder whether it is worthwhile registering for the quality mark – or, indeed, carrying on the business at all. In this market, the businesses are small, often comprising only one or two people, and potentially horrendous bureaucracy and cost are involved.
So, what are the DETR assessment criteria for the quality mark scheme pilots? Businesses will be assessed by a “financial analyst”. The assessment is based on unspecified financial checks of performance records, ratios and indicators. There does not appear to be any transparency in this process. How are businesses to know what ratios and indicators are applied? What are the pass marks?
Contractors assessed as likely to be insolvent within a year will be rejected. This is startling. Frankly, I do not believe there is any formula that can accurately predict whether a firm is likely to go out of business within a year.
If I were a tradesman, I would be tempted to say to hell with all this. I have been doing a decent job for my customers all these years without all this paraphernalia
However, it is the burdens that will be heaped on businesses that cause most concern. Contractors are required to put substantial and rigorous procedures in place. Documentation needs to be controlled and six years’ worth of records kept. Standard systems for receiving contracts and identifying the suppliers of products and services will have to be used.
All work must be monitored. Drawings and specifications will have to be made to identify every piece of material used, along with specified tolerances, fixing methods and required finishes. A system for proper inspection of materials and products on delivery and during work will have to be in place, as well as procedures to deal with non-compliant materials. It must be demonstrated that there is good storage and handling of all materials and components.
Much of this might appear to be sensible stuff, but there is no indication of what is considered “adequate” in all circumstances. If I were a tradesman running my own business, I would be likely to take fright at the imposition of these new burdens. I would have to engage some management or systems guru to set up all these procedures in addition to dealing with matters relating technical capability, customer care and complaints procedures, third-party Association of British Insurers-approved warranty, insurance and health and safety.
I would also need to fork out £500 to get the quality mark and a similar fee for renewal, possibly every year. I would be likely to say to hell with all this. I have been doing a decent job for my customers all these years without all this paraphernalia. Going for the quality mark could force me to push up my prices, causing my customers to go to the cowboys – quite the revrse of what government intends.
So, where do we go from here? My advice to the DETR is to keep things in perspective. The quality mark scheme is not about requirements for management systems and procedures that echo quality assurance schemes. It is simply about identifying and promoting firms that have a track record of reliability, technical competence and of providing a reasonable standard of service to their customers in the domestic residential sector. The DETR should learn from the experiences of industry self-regulatory schemes rather than reinventing the wheel.
In return, contractors must obtain some clear advantage in having a quality mark. At the moment, his just does not exist. There has been no directive to banks, building societies or insurance companies to insist on the quality mark when providing moneys for home extensions or repair and maintenance work. By-the-by, the chancellor has not seen fit this year to reduce VAT on repair and maintenance, which would help made the cowboy less attractive.
Rudi Klein is a barrister and chief executive of the Specialist Engineering Contractors Group.