One third of homeowners are so worried about having a bad experience with their builder that they refrain from commissioning construction work altogether, potentially costing the economy £10 billion a year.

The alarming figure, which stemmed from research from the FMB, is upsetting but not necessarily surprising. Liz Peace, Chair of the Licence UK Construction Task Force, says bad consumer experiences with rogue builders are so common that “it’s almost part of folklore”.

A viable solution to the problem is creating a mandatory licensing framework for the construction industry, but it has so far proven to be a difficult task. Peace says the Task Force has created a map of the different people involved in various forms of certification, standards or competencies. "It really was like a tangle of spaghetti." That's not good for homeowners looking for a competent builder.

What's needed is a simple mark that signifies quality and is easily understood by the consumer, without them having to navigate the intricacies of certification. CORGI for gas safety and TrustMark are good examples – although both are voluntary. Indeed, Peace believes that “beefing up” a scheme similar to TrustMark and eventually making it mandatory would be the most straightforward solution.

The Government’s Green Homes Grant Scheme, which requires that any builders carrying out work subsidised by the scheme be TrustMark or PAS-accredited, provides a useful lens through which to look at licensing.

Whatever its form, there are some small-scale builders that may regard mandatory licensing unfavourably due to the additional costs that would be involved. And there is the question of how to enforce it as the UK would need "armies of inspectors wandering through town" assessing various building work being done, Peace adds.

Additionally, any effective licensing scheme would require a two-pronged approach: builders must meet the right quality and competency standards and consumers will need to be educated “not to give work to somebody who cannot display the right sort of qualification”.

Such an approach, however, would be costly and the coronavirus pandemic only makes it more difficult to ask governments and businesses to spend money on anything that isn't directly relevant to mitigating the effects of the current crisis. Indeed, many would maintain that right now businesses need to be free of any additional constraints to restart the economy.

More business for good builders

Taking a longer-term view, there is an argument to suggest that paying more now for builders who are subscribed to a mandatory licensing scheme would save consumers money and boost a building company's reputation.

"You will get more work and you will get people who are prepared to pay a little bit more because they trust it. The good ones would gain more work and the bad ones would get put out of business... That would certainly be the intention."

A challenge would be for the builders who can't afford licensing or may not have a particular qualification but do have many years of experience. "We'd need to find ways so they could show their credentials even if they didn't, on first pass, look as if they met every criteria. Somehow, we've got to look into how to apply this sympathetically.

"It's the art of realpolitik; what can we actually get done given the distractions of COVID, the battle with the government for either legislating or taking on a potentially very difficult subject, where lots of new and small businesses will scream extra regulation."

Then there is the question of who this licensing would apply to. Peace argues that her personal view, which is not yet agreed to by the Task Force, is for licensing to focus on SME rather than the larger house building firms.

“I don't think we should be bothering with the really big companies because they already need to meet all manner of statutory requirements and if they don't, they get into trouble pretty quickly,” says Peace. The big house builders will also be caught by the New Homes Ombudsman as outlined in the Building Safety Bill. “We're aiming for SMEs that are doing some form of refurb, rebuild, retrofit and extensions to existing properties.”

The Task Force has only recently reconvened after a six-month disruption brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. The immediate focus is to press the Government to make any allocation of funding on a retrofit programme conditional upon adherence to a scheme similar to Trustmark. Once the economy strengthens, “we could move this up a gear”, Peace adds, although she warns that we are still about three years from mandatory licensing coming into force.

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