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Never trust a cowboy


A new standard for domestic building work, the TrustMark, was launched last week.

Andrew Hankinson examines whether it will fare better than its embarrassing predecessor, the Quality Mark, and banish cowboy builders for good

BOTCHED building work costs homeowners £1.5 billion a year. In 2004 Trading Standards received over 111,000 complaints against unscrupulous or inept builders, a number that overshadows the next murky trader, the second-hand car dealer.

It's a scenario familiar to Basil Fawlty, who tried to save on pennies by hiring dodgy builder O'Reilly. Once the work was finished there was a mix-up, in typical Fawlty Towers fashion, and reputable builder Stubbs came round to check the work.

As Basil cowered in the corner, his wife Sybil was told by Stubbs: 'That's a supporting wall Mrs Fawlty.

It could give way at any moment. Gawd help the floors above. Keep this door shut until I get a screw jack to prop it up before the bloody lot comes down. I don't know, bloody cowboys.' It is a scene home owners across the country recognise and until now had little chance of avoiding. But in 2001 Labour announced a manifesto pledge to introduce a scheme to beat the rogue traders and the Quality Mark was born.

But it lasted only three and a half years before being carted off by the Department of Trade and Industry. It had been designed to beat the cowboys, but ended up being run out of town like a lame-duck sheriff.

Despite having spent around £10 million of tax payers' money only 585 members had signed up as the subs ? at £600 per member ? were deemed too expensive.

Another problem was that the Government launched it to the consumers without ever getting the backing of a membership. That meant consumers had more chance of Lord Lucan riding Shergar up to the front door than finding a registered firm.

Following the debacle Dan Bernard, former director of DIY retailer B&Q, was brought in to turn the scheme around. His invention was the Building Trades Quality Scheme, which eventually became the TrustMark.

TrustMark is designed as an umbrella for all the other schemes without the huge cost of Quality Mark. It was launched to the trades last June and to consumers last week. The scheme is open to builders, electricians, heating engineers, plumbers, roofers, damp-proofers, fencing contractors, glaziers, conservatory companies, roofers and timber treatment contractors.

Its tagline to the trades is: 'If you're tired of competing with firms that deliver shoddy workmanship, becoming a Trust Mark-registered firm is the way to stand out from the rest and show that you offer a high-quality service.' The scheme is receiving Government funding at the moment, but it must be self-financing by April next year.

It is expected to cost £250,000 per year, which will be funded through a charge of £10 per member.

But the charge may not be paid by the member. Trade associations and other independent firms will act as operators, signing up their members, and it will be up to them whether or not they pass the charge on. The lack of major funds makes it clear that the Government is backing the scheme ? but at arm's length.

Construction minister Alun Michael said last week: 'While the Government strongly supports the industry's representatives and their efforts to facilitate this scheme we are not offering our support blindly.

'The clear support from industry is very heartening and reflects a real change of mood towards quality. This is in the interests of customers and the industry's own interests. There is a real opportunity here and a challenge to the industry to ensure that it succeeds.'

The statement is seen as a challenge and a warning to the building industry that it is up to itself to make TrustMark work. That is seen as positive by Chris Blythe, chief executive of TrustMark and the Chartered Institute of Building.

He told Construction News: 'It's something we're happy about and our members are happy about.

We want it to be independent of the Government, but with Government support. It allows for greater trade ownership.' TrustMark has already signed up 5,000 members from 10 trade associations including the Federation of Master Builders and is looking to treble its membership over the next three to four months. The plan is to have 25,000 on board by April 2007. But it will be difficult as the stain of Quality Mark is still very fresh.

Mr Blythe said: 'One of the reasons some firms have said they are holding off is because everything else we have tried hasn't worked so why bother with this one.

It's disappointing but we have to keep trying to increase membership.

'But a lot of trade associations are backing it and they have a lot riding on its success. Other trades not even involved in building, such as chiropodists and furniture repair firms, have shown an interest in how we're doing it as the model is working so well.' Ian Davis, director-general of the Federation of Master Builders, which has signed up 3,000 members, said: 'We will continue to lobby at a national and a European level for a reduction in the rate of VAT, but that doesn't take away from the value of TrustMark. It has a far better chance of succeeding than its predecessor, which is why we threw our weight behind it, unlike the Quality Mark.

'We think it will become an essential scheme for those in the repair, maintenance and improvement sector. We have no problem absorbing the £10 a head levy on behalf of our members. We want it to be a vehicle for consumers to have true choice. Then if people take on tradesmen for cash and it's not up to standard they can't complain.' It is a scenario not unfamiliar to contractors, who are also trying to build better relationships with clients.

Mr Blythe said: 'What we are trying to do is no different to what Constructing Excellence is aiming for.

They are improving the relationship between the contractor and the client and are moving away from a fixat ion on pr ice to a greater emphasis on value.

'We are trying to get tradesmen to do the same and get customers to do a bit more research into who is doing work for them and think about value over price.

But it is very difficult when you are dealing with individuals rather than hotshot contractors. Mr Blythe added: 'It's about building confidence with people when you go into people's homes. My mum is 76 and lives in Leeds. With this scheme I could find her a reputable tradesman. And if it works for homeowners, it'll work for the trades too as the good ones will get the recognition they deserve.' There is no doubt that as far as the Government is concerned this is last chance saloon, but it remains to be seen whether it will succeed. It all depends on how many members sign up. One thing's for sure, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid need not apply.

Rounding up the cowboys

Cowboy conman

Sam Mitchell, 51, of Burgess Hill in West Sussex, was jailed for seven years after charging an 80-year-old man £94,000 to carry out £2,500 of work. The pensioner was forced to take out loans and sell his home after parting with his life savings to pay for the work. Mitchell also tricked an 83-year-old woman out of £7,500. He was convicted of obtaining money and property by deception last August.

King of the cowboys

David Singh Saund, 56, of Handsworth Wood, Birmingham, was labelled the King of the Cowboys by Birmingham's Evening Mail after repeatedly breaking building regulations. One example of Saund's shoddy work was an extension costing £4,500 which had to be knocked down by another builder and rebuilt at a cost of £14,000. He was jailed for three months last August after failing to pay fines for breaching the rules.

Low cost cowboy

Sean Allen, 33, from Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, pleaded guilty to obtaining money by deception and was jailed for three and a half years last April.

He had traded as Low Cost Building Contractors and forced pensioners to pay for botched building work. Scores of pensioners are thought to have handed over their life savings to the rogue trader. Allen cold-called people quoting for work he said they needed done but the quotes would escalate massively and the work was often substandard. Trading Standards received 50 complaints. The judge ruled Allen had earned nearly £150,000 from the scam.