Now that the Quality Mark is a dead duck, the DTI has just taken the wraps off its bold new anti-cowboy venture: the TrustMark. But what are the chances of success this time?
Cowboy builders should have been quaking in their Stetsons when news broke back in April 2000 of the government’s plan to kick them out of the domestic market. Instead they were laughing all the way to the bank as the ill-fated Quality Mark failed to make an impact. Even Nick Raynsford, the construction minister who launched the scheme, conceded that the number of firms expressing an interest was “modest”. Four-and-a-half years later, and with nearly £10m of taxpayers’ money spent, the DTI finally killed off Quality Mark. In all, it had attracted 585 members.
Last month, a scheme rose from its ashes – the TrustMark. But why should it succeed where Quality Mark failed? Will tradesmen and consumers sign up this time round? And – perhaps the biggest question of all – has the government learned from its mistakes?
Raynsford, in a parliamentary debate one month after the launch of the Quality Mark, told fellow MPs that the initiative was experiencing a “chicken and egg” problem. “Builders will not be keen to sign up until they see consumers starting to place orders,” he said. “Equally, the scheme cannot be promoted to the public until enough builders have signed up.” Tradesmen and consumers continued to play hunt the chicken for the next four years, and a series of increasingly desperate incentives, such as insurance discounts, failed to stop it. In the end, the mark died of neglect.
Despite this dismal record – and the historical underperformance of registration schemes in the construction industry – hopes are high for TrustMark. The DTI has allocated it £2m in its first two years and the industry holds three out of nine places on its management board. Chris Blythe, the chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building, says it is the best chance the industry has ever had to stamp out cowboy builders. He is, he says, genuinely excited about the buzz it will create. So, putting all cynicism aside, here are the five reasons why his optimism might be justified …
1 Trade body back-up
The main reason given for the Quality Mark’s demise is its failure to win support from the trade bodies. With their huge membership bases, industry bodies have a grass-roots influence the government can only dream of. So this time the DTI made sure that industry organisations were onside before launching the TrustMark. After a meeting with former construction minister Nigel Griffiths in September 2004, the TrustMark forum now has the definite backing of 27 trade associations, certification bodies, Competent Persons schemes and commercial organisations.
Robert Higgs, director of the Heating and Ventilating Contractors Association, which has 1400 members, is sure that the industry’s involvement will make the difference this time round. He says: “The direct use of trade bodies is the right foundation for the project. Now we feel ownership – that was the missing ingredient last time. We weren’t invited to be part of the process during Quality Mark.”
The trade bodies will begin to receive approved scheme operator status in the next few months. This will mean that they can begin to enrol their members on its register, and this should mean that the total number of firms with TrustMark status will jump to as many as 14,000 by this time next year – 24 times more than Quality Mark achieved.
2 All schemes under one brand
Bringing industry bodies onside will not only bring a dramatic increase to the number of firms involved, it will also replace existing accreditation schemes with a single brand. When the DTI launched Quality Mark, it simply created another scheme in competition with all the others.
TrustMark works on the premise that the established schemes for consumers, mostly run by trade associations, but also by certification companies and commercial organisations, are doing their job well and do not require fundamental change. As long as industry bodies meet a set of competence and consumer care requirements, their schemes will be brought under the TrustMark brand. Standards ought to remain high because nearly all trade bodies now require their members to prove their competence before they join. Dan Bernard, the acting chair of TrustMark, puts this down to the introduction of Quality Mark, which, despite failing spectacularly on other fronts, did push associations into raising their standards.
Ian Davies, director general of the Federation of Master Builders, which is hoping to be included in the first wave of approved scheme operators, says industry bodies will have more success at stamping out cowboys by pooling their efforts. “It’s simple,” he says. “All we need to do is bring the existing schemes under the same standard criteria. Let’s work together on this.”
3 Cheaper for tradesmen
The industry’s biggest complaint about the Quality Mark scheme was the insurance-based warranty they were obliged to take out. This provided consumers with a six-year guarantee against defective work or liquidation, but the industry argued that it was too expensive and imposed a cost on legitimate builders that cowboy builders did not have to pay, thereby undermining the whole object of the exercise. With TrustMark, the warranty has become optional, it only insures against a builder going bust, and will be paid for by the customer.
Bernard admits that Quality Mark gave tradesmen a raw deal.
He says: “The bar was set very high indeed. Firms had to pay a warranty that was a minimum 0.75% of their turnover and, to be honest, most contractors started to question whether they got consumer value for this. Now, the tradesmen no longer have to pay but the work is still covered. Consumers are used to paying extra for warranties these days so it won’t come as much of a surprise.”
Membership fees also weighed heavily on those considering joining the scheme. Whereas membership of Quality Mark was extremely costly – it began at £500 for firms with a turnover of up to £100,000 – membership of TrustMark is free for two years for firms signed up to existing schemes, and will only cost about £10 for subsequent years.
4 More accessible to join
It wasn’t only financial burdens that stopped tradesmen signing up to Quality Mark, there were bureaucracy barriers, too. Firms were subject to a series of stringent tests – including a thorough check of their finances and full one-day inspection of their premises. As the HVCA puts it: “No matter how high your fences were, Quality Mark still wanted you to jump their fences as well.”
TrustMark has made accreditation a lot more accessible by allowing individual approved scheme operators to set their own standards for the TrustMark brand, as long they are based on an appropriate combination of any of TrustMark’s core criteria. This includes checks on qualifications, reports from independent qualified sources familiar with the member’s work, verification of address and bank account details, simple credit checks, checks with local trading standards and a search for County Court judgments.
5 Customers and partners are on board
No accreditation scheme can work unless customers demand and use it. The DTI asked local authorities to use Quality Mark members, but not enough tradesmen signed up to make it feasible.
A key factor in TrustMark’s success is based on councils working with the brand. The secretariat is in discussions with the Local Government Taskforce, which promotes efficiency in construction procurement, on how best to go about this. With the critical mass of the industry behind it this time round, success looks more likely.
They are also hoping the government’s new home information packs, required by all sellers in the Housing Act 2004, will work in their favour by recommending that any improvements to homes that are on the market should be carried out by TrustMark builders.
Bernard is also excited by the fact that TrustMark has struck a deal with the Yellow Pages, which is still most consumers’ first port of call. Registered tradesmen will have the TrustMark logo listed alongside their details in the directory, so consumers will know straight away which firms are endorsed. Furthermore, the Trading Standards Institute and Which? magazine are on the board and there are also rumours that a major DIY retailer, thought to be B&Q, will back the brand.
But the biggest victory would be to ensure that insurance companies only use TrustMark registered tradesmen. “We would like to have the big companies on board,” Bernard says. “That would open up a huge market and really establish our presence.”
How TrustMark works
- TrustMark is an umbrella body set up by the DTI that intends to bring all existing local accreditation schemes up to the same standards and groups them under one brand
- Administered and inspected by “approved scheme operators” – any type of organisation from trade associations, certification bodies, competent persons schemes to commercial organisations. All bodies need to fulfil TrustMark’s central criteria
- Members of existing schemes run by approved operators will automatically be upgraded to TrustMark at no extra cost for the first two years
- Non-affiliated firms can sign up for the scheme through independent certification bodies and commercial organisations, at a cost of about £300 a year
- To find out more, go to www.trustmark.org.uk
And another five reasons why TrustMark could still fail …
1 No VAT reduction
The biggest obstacle to success is that government has again failed to take on board strong lobbying from the industry to cut VAT on repair and maintenance from 17.5% to 5%. This would, in theory, create a level playing field between the bona fide trader and the rogue builder. Many key industry players, including Barry Stephens at the National Federation of Builders, believe TrustMark is doomed to fail without it. John Longworth, a partner in John Dutton & Partners, a £1m turnover loft conversion specialist based in Ealing, west London, says it is a huge mistake not to reduce VAT. “It’s already very expensive to work legitimately these days,” he says. “This will put tradesmen off.”
2 Scepticism from industry
For a significant proportion of the industry, the failure of Quality Mark has not faded into the distant past. The National Federation of Builders, with more than 2000 members, has declined to become an approved scheme operator, preferring to remain with the Construction Accredited Performance Standards scheme, as it considers the standards to be higher.
And not all tradesmen have been won over yet. Trevor Koch, director at RTT Mechanical, an M&E contractor with 350 staff, believes TrustMark is another buzzword that will come to nothing. He says: “It’s another initiative and a complete waste of time. I’m not interested and all the high hopes will probably fizzle out again.”
3 Limited range of organisations on board
Only trade associations and other organisations already involved in talks with the DTI and the ODPM have been contacted by the TrustMark secretariat to become approved scheme operators. This means key sectors of the industry could be missed out entirely and consumers may not be able to find a TrustMark-registered tradesman in the field they require. Dan Bernard, acting chairman of the Trustmark, says lack of time and resources means there are no immediate plans to contact these organisations, so bodies such as the Guild of Master Craftsmen, with 12,500 members, and the British Woodworking Association, with 500 members, might never be licensed to give their members the TrustMark brand.
4 Publicity campaign not on schedule
“At the end of the day, publicity to consumers is the most important aspect of TrustMark,” the HVCA’s Higgs points out. Yet despite having a range of ideas for marketing the scheme to consumers, TrustMark has not yet hired a PR firm to take the account on. There is also apprehension that the £1.5m set aside for promoting the scheme will not be enough. Considering the high-profile nature and importance of the scheme, industry insiders are concerned that it is too little, too late.
5 Consumers stuck in their ways
Even if the PR campaign is delivered in time, the question remains: will consumers be willing to change their ways? Bill Rabbets, managing director of Herbert H Drew & Son, a Hampshire-based contractor with 100 staff, says in his experience consumers like to stick with what they know. He says: “Most of the domestic sector is driven by personal recommendations and price. There might be a bit of movement in this but I don’t foresee a huge change. In a world of immediacies, people want the job done in the quickest and cheapest possible way.”