Nick Raynsford is now faced with the crucial decision on how tough to make the quality mark, the centrepiece of his anti-cowboy plan. What factors will he be taking into account?
Ever heard of the Builders and Contractors Guild? The League of Professional Craftsmen? If not, you are probably in the company of most British consumers. These are just two of the plethora of logos consumers find in the Yellow Pages. And as non-statutory bodies, they have a similar, join-if-you-feel-like-it status to the proposed quality mark.

Perhaps you have heard of the Federation of Master Builders’ register of warranted builders, which offers consumers an insurance-backed warranty and complaints system similar to that of the proposed quality mark. But again, this scheme offers protection only to the customers of firms that bother to join – and in the FMB’s case, that is only 3000 out of a potential membership of 15 000.

Or there is the Roofing Industry Alliance Hallmark scheme, featured in Building in February 1997, launched by Nick Raynsford two years later, and not due to accredit its first roofing contractor until November. Its slow progress from concept to reality could prefigure the difficult path of the quality mark scheme.

The scheme, as proposed by the DETR’s Combating Cowboy Builders Working Group and presented to construction minister Nick Raynsford at the end of August, has three key weaknesses. These are its voluntary status, the danger that too few firms join, and the possibility of a lengthy hiatus between the idea and the nationally promoted scheme. Then there are questions over how the maze of trade associations fit in – and who will foot the seven-figure bill for setting up the scheme.

Toughen up or water down?

But the final report does not necessarily describe the final scheme. Raynsford has the freedom to strengthen – or water down – the proposals before he finalises the details in November. The final version could end up with about as much clout as the Craftsmen's Guild, or conversely, as tightly regulated as CORGI.

But quality mark sceptics can draw comfort from events at the end of October, which should prompt the minister to focus on a statutory version of the scheme. On 27 October, Tory MP Tony Baldry will introduce a 10-minute rule bill proposing statutory back-up for the scheme, by bringing domestic repair and maintenance within the scope of the Building Regulations.

Baldry claims extensive cross-party support for his measures, which seem a neat compromise between a voluntary scheme and primary legislation. However, he admits that they are unlikely to win sufficient support while the government is “waiting to see” how the voluntary system works. But why wait? asks Baldry. “That argument seems pointless; it is not a particularly complex issue. Parliamentary time could be found to get a scheme that has teeth.”

The scheme outlined in the final report certainly has potential. Firms that volunteer for quality mark accreditation would be assessed on their technical capability, skills and qualifications, financial probity and adherence to a code of practice. They would have to provide financial protection to clients against their going bust or failing to rectify defects in a given period.

First, an ownership body would be established. This would enlist the accrediting agencies that would inspect quality mark applicants. The Building Research Establishment has already shown interest in the role, and can expect to be joined by the British Board of Agrément and the British Standards Institution. Competition between inspecting bodies could keep down the cost of accreditation to applicants, estimated at £300-500 a year.

But Graham Watts, chief executive of the Construction Industry Council, is worried that plans for the scheme are already losing momentum. Now the working group has been disbanded, he points out that no organisation is in a position to take charge of the two pilot schemes in Birmingham and Somerset, or prepare the ground for the national scheme.

“The success of the pilot schemes depends on the number of firms accredited and the consumers persuaded to use it. But you can’t have a quality mark until there are accrediting bodies, and you can’t have them until there is an infrastructure.” And given the time it takes to set up a body with a watertight constitution, Watts says, “summer 2000 is definitely optimistic”.

In lieu of statutory status, the CIC would like the government to use its clout to promote the quality mark. “For example, firms might only be included on local authority lists if they have a quality mark.” says Watts.

The concept of added benefit is also central to Baldry’s proposals. His idea is to extend the scope of the Building Regulations to cover maintenance and repair, so quality marked firms would be exempt from having to notify the local authority of their work. Non-registered firms would be subject to inspections, charges and possible prosecution by building control inspectors if they evaded inspection or contravened the regulations.

“The use of existing legislation can achieve what a compulsory scheme would,” says Chris Shuttleworth, the Institute of Building Control’s representative on the working group. “We don’t necessarily want to be involved in the replacement of a couple of slates, but we’d like to use the Building Regulations as a means of protecting the consumer.”

The Building Regulations solution implies a considerable role for local authorities in the implementation of the quality mark. It has a similar emphasis to the working group’s report, which recommended that the ownership body be 10-strong, and should consist of four representatives from the industry, three from local authorities and three from consumer groups – a conclusion welcomed by the National Consumer Council, as it will dilute the influence of the trade bodies.

Lots of quality marks?

However, trade associations may find other ways to have their say. Some see the quality mark as an umbrella scheme, with subdivisions in each industry sector that they will run. For example, Ian Watts, the chief executive of the Institute of Plumbing, says: “We see the Plumbing and Domestic Heating Alliance [an organisation now being planned] as a subset of the overall scheme.”

The same applies to the warranty system; trade associations such as the FMB foresee that quality marked members will continue to use the FMB’s warranty scheme.

However, this fracturing of the scheme into industry segments dominated by their respective trade associations concerns the NCC. “Trade schemes tend to overlook the question of consumer confidence. If they do set up their own schemes, we would expect them to be run with the same kind of governance as the overall quality mark,” says Frances Harrison, senior NCC policy and development officer.

Ian Watts doubts whether the scheme can be made to appeal to the thousands of jobbing tradesmen surviving happily on word-of-mouth recommendations. “They already have a well-established client base, and no need to advertise. There’s a culture of recommendation based on the pub or the golf club, and that will continue.”

What does seem clear is that funding is vital to the quality mark’s success. “There’s got to be a massive amount of [spending on] advertising; into the millions,” says the Graham Watts. “But if that’s paid for out of accreditation fees, it will be too expensive to be worthwhile.”

Even with the working group’s report finally delivered, there are still plenty of questions for Raynsford and his team at the DETR to ponder. There are not many optimists in the industry who see the report as the final answer to the cowboy problem. Rather, it is a starting-point – with plenty of scope for improvement.

Building’s campaign to outlaw cowboys: The story so far

On 5 March we called for
  • Compulsory registration of builders
  • A construction tsar to resolve disputes
  • An £8m advertising campaign such as the one proposed by top agency Black Andrews On 4 June we revealed
  • 89% of home owners want an anti-cowboy law, following an NOP poll for Building
  • Complaints over shoddy home improvements rose 12% in 1998, according to the Office of Fair Trading Meanwhile in Parliament …
  • Former Tory construction minister Tony Baldry launches a 10-minute rule bill requiring non-registered builders to seek Building Regulations approval for domestic work