A national registration scheme, an ombudsman and a law banning unqualified builders. According to an NOP poll, that's how the public would deal with cowboys.
The homeowning public has given its unequivocal support to Building's campaign to outlaw cowboy builders. In an NOP telephone poll of 400 homeowners commissioned by Building, a resounding 95% wanted the protection of a national registration scheme for builders, and an equally conclusive 89% agreed that unqualified builders should be banned by law from trading.

The full results of the poll – detailed overleaf –demonstrate beyond doubt that the public wants firm action to drive unscrupulous and uncertified builders and tradespeople out of the market. The strength of opinion from this representative sample of homeowners around the country backs Building's own campaigning stance on the issue (5 March).

The overcharging and shoddy workmanship they describe are also representative, and on the increase. The latest annual figures from the Office of Fair Trading, compiled from the caseloads of trading standards officers around the country, show that complaints relating to home repair and maintenance jumped 12% in 1998 to become the fastest growing source of complaints. The Building/NOP poll and the OFT figures are a timely reminder of the scale of the problem, and the public's expectation that it should be tackled. The consultation period on the government taskforce paper Combating Cowboy Builders ends on 2 July, signalling one last chance for the DETR and the industry to nail the problem.

The figures should not be dismissed as a sideshow to the issues facing construction on profitability, image and attracting a new generation of recruits. As Construction Confederation president Alan Crane makes clear, the public perception of construction as a whole is inextricably linked with that of the cowboys and sharp practice.

"As far as 95% [of homeowners] are concerned, their image of the industry is conditioned by what cowboys do – either what they hear, or what they see on TV. And they don't distinguish between different parts of the industry. It's the biggest single thing that determines the industry's image."

Harrowing experience

Not everything the cowboys do is as harrowing as the experience suffered by 85-year-old Mrs B (right). But the public is all too aware of cowboy tricks such as scandalously high hourly rates, contracts weighed down by small print, overcharging for materials bought from DIY stores and deliberately carrying out unnecessary works.

Recent cases reported by trading standards officers make grim reading. They include a woman in Surrey with a £14 000 bill for rewiring a two-bedroom bungalow when the work was independently valued at no more than £4000; a man in Leeds charged £7500 for an unnecessary roof replacement that leaked; and a pensioner in Surrey quoted £200-300 for guttering work, charged £700, then driven to the building society by the men who had duped her.

The statistics are equally worrying. In Surrey last year, work by cowboy builders accounted for 1500 out of 16 000 complaints to trading standards officers, coming second only to second-hand cars.

The government's proposals to tackle the problem, outlined in April's consultation paper, are based on a voluntary regulation scheme and the concept of a quality mark. Firms achieving quality mark status would abide by a code of practice, work to a "fair deal" model contract and offer customers insurance-backed financial protection. Consumers would find a quality mark builder through a national phone line.

However, the government has so far backed away from putting a new law on the statute books to add legal weight to the scheme. Speaking at the launch of the consultation paper, construction minister Nick Raynsford said: "I am sure it is right to proceed on a voluntary basis, not only because the working group believes that such a scheme can be made to work effectively, but also because there is no real prospect of legislative time in the near future."

He’s a wicked man. He wants to be exposed or he’s going to do the same to someone else

Mrs B

The Building/NOP poll shows that the public would prefer a tougher stance. By a majority of more than two to one – 67% compared with 28% – homeowners said they wanted any national registration scheme to be compulsory rather than voluntary. This would give the scheme similar legal status to the Air Travel Organisers Licence – ATOL – where membership is a legal requirement.

The other model for a mandatory scheme is CORGI, the Council for Registered Gas Installers, charged by the Health and Safety Executive with maintaining a register of approved and qualified gas installers. When a consumer lodges a complaint against a CORGI member, an internal investigation can remove the installer from the register, but it is the HSE that pursues a prosecution.

A total of 94% of homeowners agreed that builders who fall short of acceptable standards in workmanship should be "prosecuted" and fined. Currently, trading standards officers can bring civil cases against cowboy builders under a range of legislation, including the Trade Descriptions Act, the Consumer Protection Act and the Business Names Act. However, most trading standards officers contacted by Building for this article agreed that current legal powers are unsatisfactory, with year-long proceedings often resulting in no more than a conditional discharge or a derisory £200 fine.

Ombudsman wanted

A conclusive 96% of homeowners wanted construction to follow the lead of other regulated industries in appointing an independent ombudsman to resolve disputes between builders and homeowners.

Homeowners in the survey make a strong case for a firmer legislative hand, but at the same time they recognise that this would entail considerable costs. Setting up a national registration scheme, policing it, advertising it and paying the salaries of an ombudsman and secretariat would be an expensive undertaking, 42% said it should be borne by the builders themselves; 40% believed it should be funded jointly by industry and government.

Overall, the survey firmly backs a government-sponsored, national approach with legal teeth. However, the public's view contrasts with the ad hoc way in which some local authorities are tackling the problem, with a patchwork of local registration schemes filling the vacuum at national level. Nottingham City Council, for instance, is considering its own accreditation programme, where firms would be assessed for competence by the council's building control inspectors and a register of approved builders would be administered by trading standards staff. In Bournemouth, trading standards officers are planning a "business partnership" initiative, where local builders would be vetted and allowed to display a council logo if up to scratch.

But however well intentioned, such a piecemeal approach could confuse consumers and will do little to restore the public's confidence in the industry as a whole.

"We definitely need a national scheme," says Crane. "For any scheme to work, the public has to be aware of it. So you need a national, high-level public information campaign – we can't have umpteen local schemes."

Federation of Master Builders director-general Ian Davis agrees. "It's pointless having individual schemes. Where I live, I could choose a builder from several different local authorities. Consumers want a simple arrangement, so that if something goes wrong, they know where to turn to get it sorted out."

Mrs B

This is 85-year-old Mrs B, a pensioner who recently moved into a small seaside flat following the death of her husband. She wanted some shelves in her kitchen lowered, and plumbing for her automatic washing machine. New to the area, she not unreasonably looked in her phone directory for the number of a local tradesman. She was delighted to find one with a freephone number who advertised special rates for OAPs. The man who arrived on her doorstep was notorious locally for a decade-long trail of complaints and misery. His repertoire included inflated bills, dodgy work, taking large deposits then disappearing, and claiming he worked for the local council. But to Mrs B, he was all charm, using a favourite tactic of getting on first-name terms as soon as possible. Invited to look at her kitchen, the builder estimated a hefty £400 for the minor joinery and plumbing work. Mrs B had the good sense to refuse to pay more than £250. But once work started, he not only removed the shelves but ripped off the wallpaper behind them and claimed that a perfectly sound wall needed a coat of Artex. He then told Mrs B that he could not plumb in the washing machine but would get a friend to do it for an extra £150. At this point, Mrs B resisted the pressure he was putting on her and asked him to leave. She was forced to write out a cheque for £250 but had the presence of mind to phone her bank and ask the staff to stop payment. The cheque was presented just hours after her phone call. The £250 never left her account but Mrs B was left £400 poorer after having to pay tradesmen recommended by her new neighbours to redecorate the kitchen. Luckily, the builder has not attempted to return to Mrs B’s flat. But her attempts to have him traced and prosecuted have come to nothing. The police informed her there was nothing they could do unless he was “caught in the act”, while the local council’s trading standards department had to concede that there was no actual law broken to form the basis of a case. The experience has shaken Mrs B, who agreed to talk to Building in the hope that publicity would make life harder for this builder and others like him. “He’s a wicked man. He was very, very rude. He wants to be exposed or he’s going to do the same to someone else.” Mrs B knows how likely this is. While supposedly working in her flat, the builder introduced himself to her 89-year-old neighbour and managed to take £20 from her as a “deposit” on work on her kitchen. “That’s the kind of man he is. He’s very plausible and charming. Twenty pounds was all she had on her and she was lucky it wasn’t more. But still, she needed that money.” The case is particularly sad in that it was Mrs B’s first experience in a new town. “To think this happened the first few days I was here. I felt like running away.”