The streets of Birmingham resounded with the sound of a furious, if metaphorical, shootout with cowboy builders last week. “Beware the cowboys!” was the front-page headline on last Wednesday’s Birmingham Evening Mail and the line was repeated on flysheets all over the city. Mail readers shook their heads at the three-page exposé of a rogue trader who left a trail of distressed Brummie pensioners in his wake. At bus stops, they swapped stories of bad experiences with builders and some phoned the Mail’s anti-cowboy hotline, launched on Tuesday as part of a campaign to name and shame the West Midlands’ “rogue roofers, cowboy builders or dodgy drive layers”. Meanwhile, an anti-cowboy unit at the Birmingham consumer advice centre has been swooping on domestic building sites in search of cowboys since April.
All this suggests that Birmingham is a cowboy blackspot. This is confirmed by figures from home improvement Internet service Improveline.com in April: one-third of people in Birmingham and the West Midlands say they have been ripped off by cowboy builders. So it seems a perfect place for the government to test the most important element of its anti-cowboy strategy: a quality mark that would assure customers that their builder will give them a certain quality of service.
The progress of the pilot so far does not inspire optimism. Back in April, construction minister Nick Raynsford asked firms to sign up for it. Without their support, the trial could not succeed. The industry’s response was lukewarm – so far, only one firm, Millman Group, has qualified for the mark. And as all agree that there is no point in offering the scheme to the public until there is something to offer, the launch was put back from June to the autumn.
The government denied last week that the pilot was in trouble. Its story was that vetting firms’ legal, credit and customer service histories is proving trickier than expected. Radio advertisements aimed at contractors have been aired during the past month on local stations BRMB and Heart FM, and, it says, the call centre running the scheme’s hotline has taken 393 requests for information packs. So far, 281 contractors have requested support from Birmingham council or the Construction Industry Training Board to get their credentials in shape. Six firms have paid subscription fees and are waiting to be processed.
Sharon Hill, quality mark project officer at Birmingham City Council, who is hand-holding builders through the assessment, is sanguine about the application process. “Any good builder should be able to get through it. It’s just getting down to filling in the application form and sending it back with insurance certificates, health and safety policy, and environmental and equal opportunities policies. If they need help with a training issue, we put them in touch with the CITB. [The forms] are slowly trickling back. Any new initiative takes a while to gather steam.”
Reducing VAT will be the final proof that government means what it says about the quality mark
David Millman, Millman Group
A meeting hosted by anti-cowboy taskforce chief executive Tony Merricks last week was attended by about 40 West Midlands builders, as well as residents groups and housing associations. The local industry supports the quality mark in principle but many firms seem to be waiting to see how committed the government is to it – in other words, it will not succeed until it is successful. This is the chicken-and-egg situation acknowledged by Raynsford in a parliamentary debate last month.
Richard Sapcote, chairman of Birmingham-based contractor William Sapcote & Sons, does little domestic work but says the scheme’s slow uptake was predictable given the culture of the target market. “They are doing the right thing aiming at tradesmen. But smaller firms are always slow to jump into paperwork. They think, ‘We’ve got enough work, we’re fine, we don’t need the quality mark.’ Only those who are expansive, ambitious and see it as adding value will sign up.”
Paul Clark, manager of roofing specialist Clark & Sons, is ambivalent about the scheme, even though he has been a member of the city council’s quality mark pilot steering group since last December. Company secretary Lynn Clark says: “We were very interested to begin with. But paying £500 plus 1.5% of your annual turnover for insurance is not really on. It would push us out of the bracket where we could compete with the cowboys.” She adds: “We felt that it is not worth it until it is advertised to the right people, on national television as well as print and radio.”
So, when will the scheme take off? David Millman, director of quality-marked Millman, believes that this will happen only when the assessment criteria are made less of a headache. “The assessment sets too much store by BRE standards and audit trails. It should not be based on ticking boxes, but on whether a firm does a competent job to a reasonable standard at the price and in the time agreed.”