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Seeing off the cowboys

Beating the cowboys has been tried before and it failed miserably.

On the last day of August the new Minister for Housing, Planning & London received the final report of the Cowboy Builders Working Group. An odd title for a quango and not one to boast about - but as I was on it, I'm bound to say that it produced an excellent report.

The chairman, Tony Merricks (a civil engineer, of course) deserves immense credit for achieving the Minister's brief at a fast pace, yet still dealing with the prickly sensitivities of certain trade associations who felt threatened by the whole enterprise.

Beating the cowboys has been tried before and it failed miserably. There are people all over the country being ripped off by rogue building traders every day. It's a big issue. Over a quarter of all small businesses are connected to the construction industry and, since there is no reliable way of proving otherwise, every one of them is a potential cowboy to the proverbial Mrs Jones.

There are many trade associations producing many logos. Each will argue that their particular brand distinguishes their members from the cowboys. But I haven't yet come across a trade association that relies on much more than payment of a subscription to open the door to membership. Their only purpose is to represent their members' interests. That is what their members pay them to do and general altruism doesn't figure.

The Merricks proposals rely on the impact of a single new logo - a Quality Mark, which it is hoped will become building's equivalent of the ABTA sign for travel agents.

But it must follow that success of the QM will be at the expense of other logos.

'Use a Quality-Marked firm and if the job isn't done right it will be fixed, no questions asked' is the message that should accompany the scheme. It is due to be piloted in Birmingham and at an as yet unidentified rural area later this year.

I hope it is successful but so much still needs to be done. To get the QM a firm has to be accredited to a European Standard (EN45011) by a body approved by UKAS. There aren't any yet so we need to get some quickly if pilots are to begin in the autumn.

Consumers have got to be aware of the QM. This will need sustained and significant advertising in all media, which will cost millions. This can't be found from the fees charged to QM firms since it will be prohibitive and the promotion needs to come soonest. So this budget is down to Nick Raynsford and it can't be skimped.

Firms must see the benefit of the QM quickly. It will be no good encouraging consumers to look for the QM if no one has it. Added value could be achieved by exemptions to extended building regulations, exclusivity to local authority lists of approved suppliers and so on. There have to be clear benefits to make the good firms pay to play.

Before any of this happens a governing body must be created to bring government, industry and domestic clients together. The Construction Industry Board already does this (although it needs added consumer voices) and is best placed to take the QM on.

Trade bodies don't want their member firms to become accountable to a higher authority and have so far blocked the path to CIB ownership. If not the CIB then something else must be established soon.

Whatever it is, trade association barons must not be allowed to dominate the membership - I'd ban the lot, including me!

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