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'Cowboys' can be good guys too

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It is the black market that makes small-scale construction affordable, so the government should leave it well alone

The government's clampdown on cowboy builders is a lynch party rather than a fair trial, branding unregistered builders as villains.

In the increasingly popular TV format, viewers are often confronted with a fly-on-the-wall docusoap about buildings and builders - usually on the dangers of arse-cracked navvies in Builders from Hell. The government has taken up the cudgels against poor construction standards in the British building industry, publishing a range of guidance documents and policy position statements on the subject of 'cowboy builders'.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has long approved quality mark schemes for contractors (although the takeup of accreditation has been slow) and it endorses initiatives such as 'considerate constructors', the Movement for Innovation and other regulatory guidance, pushing for improved conduct and performance from building firms. The department's new key performance indicators will be published in May.

So what is the gripe? Effectively, complaints about poor services, shoddy workmanship and over-charging offered by so-called rogue builders are deemed to be on the rise and the government wants to ensure that these cowboys are rooted out by means of registration schemes and warranties.

But is this an over-reaction? Don't non-cowboys screw up? Surely the government has less altruistic motives than ensuring pensioners are not pressurised into having their roofs replaced when they do not need to be.

Cowboys exist, of course, but the vast majority of small contractors operate in relatively small catchment areas and generally survive on word of mouth. So what if some of them do not pay VAT? So what if some of them don't pay tax at all? If they do a decent job, who cares?

I know that the Department of Trade and Industry is currently promoting an anti-scrounger message, but one person's tax fiddle is another's fringe benefit. The idea that evading the taxman marks a contractor out as a cowboy is a weak piece of logic indeed. In fact, most of these small, hand-to-mouth organisations can't afford not to do a good job.

Their livelihoods depend on it.

It is through the black economy that much domestic extension work is made affordable for homeowners.

None of us want to build flat roofs with two layers of bituminous felt (or bituminous membrane as it's called in non-cowboy circles), but the market decides that brick-block cavity construction with plywood on firrings is the most economical form for most people. And even if it can be shown that it is not, try convincing a homeowner, viewing their premises as an investment, to go for a glass box with sinusoidal standing seam roof.

They will tell you where you can stick your quality mark.

There are many levels of involvement for mainstream small contractors. In contract value terms, contract prices typically range from £30,000 to £250,000, although there are not many opportunities in the real world for domestic jobs at the higher end of this scale.

Extensions usually lie at the lower end - partial brickwork pointing and garden walling can come in as low as £5,000, but some projects require wall tie replacements and window replacement for as much as £15,000.

There is often no margin for error in these schemes and certainly no financial tolerances for niceties.

The cliche of the British construction jobsworth may still exist in the local authority public works departments, but leaning on your shovel and refusing to speed up is not a good way to attract further business.

The quality mark scheme, which was developed so that contractors without quality would be excluded from the register, has not had a good take-up, partly because the industry does not want to expose its own inefficiencies. Does this make us all cowboys? It sounds more like a protection racket established by the big boys to weed out the small firms.

The quality mark scheme was developed to give 'consumers' the ability to assess, at a glance, whether a contractor is a good builder or not. A take-up rate of less than 100 per cent makes it a bit of a mockery, but the scheme is based on a false premise in any case. Quality does not come with paper qualifications, but is a function of dedication, knowledge and enthusiasm. Most of this is the stuff of so-called cowboy builders.

I have heard many examples of established building firms treating clients - not to mention subcontractors - with contempt. Withholding payment has caused untold damage to small builders (the Housing Grants, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996 has not stopped this abuse of power) and clients suffer from unstable site relations.

The government should stop acting like a glorified consumer champion.More usefully, it could get on with cutting red tape, reducing the cost of materials and generating a stable economic framework that encourages investment in the construction sector.

The bottom line is that it should just leave well alone. The 'system' is self-regulatory; if you are a crap builder, word will get around.

Abraham Rickie works for a construction firm

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