When self-certification was set up, it was welcomed as a way to cut red tape and rid the industry of rogue traders. So why, just two months on, are furious builders and regulators clamouring to get rid of it?
On 1 April, the government gave the go-ahead to a scheme to improve the performance of the construction industry. Called self-certification, it was designed to promote competence in contractors, cut red tape, and help consumers in the domestic and parts of the commercial sector spot rogue traders.

The move was an honourable attempt to rid construction of its dishonourable element, and as such it had the backing of the industry. But now, builders and regulators have come to regard self-certification as an unnecessary financial burden – and one that plays into the hands of the cowboys. What is more, it has been attacked for increasing red tape and for undermining the general builder. It could even, some claim, be a threat to public safety.

Such is the disgruntlement, there have been campaigns in both houses of parliament to annul the scheme, and there is talk of the government being taken to court over the way it was introduced.

"It's a bit of a dog's dinner," says Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, the organisation that represents 13,000 small and medium-sized construction firms. David Crago, president of the District Surveyors Association – the body representing local authority building control – puts it a little more diplomatically: "I'm not convinced that self-certification has been sufficiently well thought through," he says.

Why now?
Self-certification allows contractors who are members of a government-approved scheme to certify that their work has been completed in accordance with the Building Regulations. It eliminates the need for further checking from local government building control officers. However, the scheme is not compulsory and contractors can still opt, at a cost, for building control to certify that their work complies with the Building Regulations.

One of the reasons that the government introduced self-certification was that it had no choice. As part of the UK's commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the DTLR amended Part L of the Building Regulations, which deals with energy efficiency. This would have meant that building control inspectors would have had the impossible task of looking at about 2 million replacement windows a year. The only alternative was to give the power of approval to whoever installed the windows. Once that principle was established, it was a natural move to extend it to other elements of the Building Regulation as and when they were amended.

So far, the list includes the drainage regulations (Part H) and boiler regulations (Part J), but it looks likely to be extended to Part P, a set of rules that the DTLR has proposed to cover electrical safety. There are even rumours that replacement roofs will be self-certifiable and Ian Chisholm, a director of the Glass and Glazing Federation, says he is under pressure from the government to make the federation's replacement glazing scheme – FENSA – apply to commercial as well as domestic installations. The District Surveyors Association's Crago joins the chorus with news that it has been proposed that builders and self-certify their work on extensions to residential buildings – something he is opposed to because of the regular problems consumers have with them.

Consider the following example
Obviously, if builders are to certify their own work, they must be competent to do so. They can only demonstrate this competence by passing some sort of vetting procedure – there are now four such recognised procedures (see table, below), but others are undoubtedly on the way. A general builder on a kitchen refit might move a boiler, relocate a hot-water cylinder, reposition a sink, install an electric cooker and perhaps even replace a window. To do this legitimately, our builder would need to gain membership of four differently regulated schemes (five when and if Part P comes into force), or go to the expense of calling in building control, which would defeat the whole idea of self-certification. On the other hand, if he is a rogue, he will not do any of this – and undercut his reputable competitors.

As well as treading on its own toes, self-certification shows a lack of joined-up thinking between government departments. For one thing, the DTLR is pushing for an indefinite number of competency schemes and the DTI is promoting its quality mark and Constructionline vetting services. Charles McKeown, chairman of the UK construction arm of the Federation of Small Businesses, says: "The third-party certification of the quality mark is at odds with the self-certification schemes. Moreover, self-certification and the quality mark overlap with each other, involve duplicate work for building firms wishing to join both, and one does not offer a greater degree of consumer protection in comparison with the other." The FMB's Ian Davis says: "Our line is: if you are quality marked, you should be able to self-certify."

Moreover, there are concerns about the extent of additional consumer protection the schemes offer. Chisholm says his federation was under pressure from the DTLR not to make the entrance criteria on the body's FENSA scheme too rigorous, – thereby ensuring a high take-up. It is a point with which Andrew Large, external affairs director at the FMB, concurs: "It is difficult to see how much lower entry criteria to FENSA could be."

But even if a small general contractor found time to join the plethora of self-certification schemes and sign-up for the quality mark too, there would still be the costs to consider. "The costs imposed are likely to be prohibitive for builders doing a small number of installations per year," says the FMB's Large. His organisation estimates that first-year costs of joining the scheme are in the thousands of pounds. Taking replacement windows as an example, the FMB says the alterative to self-certification (application to local authority building control) is likely to cost at least £150 per installation.

The DTLR denies that costs will be prohibitive. In a letter responding to the FMB, obtained by Building, health and safety minister Alan Whitehead says: "Clearly, it would be possible for people to be members of all these schemes without having to pay the thousands of pounds it is alleged that they will have to pay, and there will certainly be very significant savings on the normal building control fees."

The outlaws will win
More worrying for the government, however, is the feeling that these extra costs for legitimate builders will play into the hands of the cowboys not registered under such schemes. "Such charges will create a real incentive to swell the shadow economy, which is precisely the opposite of what was intended," says Large.

Safety and not cost is the main problem, however. "The salami-slicing of the industry into specialisms is to the detriment of the general builder," says Davis. And it is this dispersion into specialists that is of greatest concern to building control officers. The DSA's David Crago uses the example of a plumber replacing drainage pipe passing through a fire wall. "A plumber might be too specialist to know of the danger of penetrating the fire wall," he points out.

The DSA has raised its concern about safety in a letter to Alan Whitehead. "We're making noises," says Crago. But the FMB has taken its dissatisfaction with the government further still by declaring its support for an early day motion (number 1099) laid down by Alan Beith MP, which seeks to annul the legislation that enables self-certification under the Building Regulations.

The FMB's Large says the organisation is not opposed to self-certification but that it was not involved in the government's consultation on the FENSA scheme. It is not just in the House of Commons that the FMB is making its case heard. By skillful lobbying, it managed to get the issue debated in the House of Lords on 13 May. After some debate, Lord Skelmerdale secured a promise from Lord Filkin that: "The relevant minister, Dr Alan Whitehead, will be very pleased to meet the FMB, both to have a little canter over the history of this matter and also, probably more productively, to talk about the future development of the self-certification scheme."

But even with such a promise, the FMB is keeping up the pressure. "We have not ruled out a legal approach," says Large. "We believe the government has breached the requirement in the Building Act to consult."

Regardless of whether self-certification is annulled or combined with the quality mark, there is still the issue of how effective it will be at eliminating cowboys. "The rogue trading element will not join schemes like FENSA," says Large. Nor are they likely to notify local authority building control to inspect their work – which still leaves the public vulnerable. "We'd all like the government to achieve its objective of stamping out the rogue trader," adds Large. "The issue is how it goes about it."