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Do we need a crackdown on cowboy builders?

Silhouette of a cowboy

Cowboy builders are being attacked again – this time by MPs calling for a consultation into how the industry is licensed. Is this the right approach – or is there a better way to improve our trust in traders?

Lib Dem MP, Stephen Lloyd, has spoken out saying it’s imperative that the government acts to end the ‘proliferation of cowboy builders that plagues us all’.

Perhaps that’s a bit melodramatic, but I see his point. We all know people struggle to find a builder they trust – and a Co-op survey last year put traders in the top ten most distrusted professions, not far behind politicians and bankers.

Not all builders are cowboys

Being the partner of a joiner who often comes home with tales of builders deliberately doing a bad job (or doing no job at all), I’ve heard enough to realise the industry is flawed.

Still, there are many decent traders out there and it’s all too easy to lump the lot of them into the ‘cowboy’ bracket. It’s finding the good ones – and then getting them to slot you into their busy schedule – that’s the difficult part.

Which? Local goes a long way to solving this, giving people the chance to recommend traders that they’ve used. But it does rely on enough reviews being added, as Which? Local’s Pete Tynan pointed out in a previous Conversation on this very subject:

‘You should take a single review from a member with a pinch of salt, and the best way to find a reliable trader is to get a personal recommendation from someone you know and trust.

But if you’re not fortunate enough to have a network of friends/family where you live then Which? Local can be a great way of finding a good trader – as many Which? members have told us.

Remember that customer feedback also helps keep the good local traders in business and drive out the bad guys.’

What’s the solution?

Yes, Which? Local or personal recommendations are a good start, but do we need to find a better answer to improve the industry?

Stephen Lloyd says he isn’t calling for over-regulation – and I’m glad. As he says, this could well cause ‘detriment [to] the small businesses and entrepreneurial spirit we need to be championing.’

Instead, he urges that it’s time ‘to tackle this issue head on and a Westminster Hall debate is a brilliant start, but there is much work to be done’.

It’s all rather vague, and it isn’t the first time that political noises have been made – a crackdown on rogue traders was announced back in July 2009 – so will these murmurs really make any difference? Or is it simply up to us to develop our own method of finding traders we trust?


When I needed a job done – (I usually DIY) I asked the builder for three local places he had done jobs for – visited the three places and asked. Worked well.

Could Which? help by providing standard forms of of contract and guarantee for household building work.

This should lay down a standard set of fair conditions such as a stage payments with some money being held back until satisfactory completion or signing off by the council’s building control department declaration of interest cover etc.

A contractor’s refusal to use these should be taken as evidence of a cowboy

The last thing that is wanted is any licensing or registration scheme. It would add more red-tape and costs which will be borne by the reliable traders , ignored by the rogues and act as a barrier to those trying to setup in business for themselves. Just what is not wanted in recession.


My electrician is constantly moaning about the ridiculous “Part P” regulations which mean that he, a registered sparky with NICEIV for over 25 years, continues to pay his registration fees and work honestly as he always has done, whilst the cowboys also continue to do what they have always done, but now when he goes to someone’s house to do what should be a simple job, he either has to turn the work away because the rest of the system has been left so dangerous or else try to get the customer to accept what could be hundreds of pounds of extra work to make good someone else’s c**k-up, all because under the latest regs if he does ANY work he is legally responsible for testing and either disconnecting or putting right everything else in the installation.

Similarly my plumber condemns the gas safe scheme (and it’s predecessor CORGI) because the honest guys are ripped off for membership fees but the cowboys just carry one regardless.

It’s even a little similar in education where the last Government invented the GTC which did nothing except duplicate the work of the CRB and the unions but cost the taxpayers millions of pounds for the privilege. It hasn’t stopped poor teachers though. I see JCDD moaning about Gove (below) and I agree in the main, but at least Gove has seen that GTC was a huge waste of money and scrapped it, I will give him credit for that.

IMHO the answer is to educate people so that they can do work competently ( see Fat Sam’s post below and also recent Which? convos about DIY being a dying art) and to have proper INSPECTORS who do actually inspect and who do actually force bad tradesmen to correct defects and undergo proper (re)training. We also have to be realistic and accept that no matter how we regulate and inspect there will always be the odd one or two rougues that still get through the net.

There are ways to reduce the risks of being duped by cowboy builders – most sensible people know them and use them and avoid many of the problems they cause.

As for standards in the industry itself I believe that the more skilled tradespeople are in it the better the industry will be for everyone.

It’s about time our education system took into account the benefits of having SKILLS (and, in doing so, removed those tags ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ that so often precede the word).

Recognised qualifications, such as A levels in Building (covering not only construction skills but also basic business, sales, marketing skills and employment law) should be available, with students able to earn something from learning on the job. Some will say they can’t afford to study. I say you can’t afford not to.

Think about this: We have students complaining they have to pay too much to learn and we have apprentices complaining that they’re not being paid enough to learn!


I absolutely agree Fat Sam, and speaking as a teacher who has worked in a highly deprived area for about 16 years, with students who are screaming out for SKILLS, I feel such frustration about this that I cannot describe it.

Under the Thatcher government, the Major government, the Blair Government and the Brown government education minister after education minister has made this situation worse and taken away more and more of the SKILLS subjects. Under the CONDEM(ned) government Gove has put he last nails in the coffin with his outrageously elitist and ignorant schemes. Can you, Fat Sam, help us to get ANY government or minister to see sense? I wish I could.

I do have to point out that BEFORE Thatcher – skills were taught in schools – as was financial knowledge – But sadly the general public, business, and teachers were not satisfied.

The general public sneered at the qualifications gained (CSEs) – Business were always complaining they wanted better qualifications – nor would they train on site (Thatcher removed incentives for on site training and only gave incentives to financial institutions) – Teachers wanted equal opportunities for all.(I was one of them) Skills need to be taught early – but so does academic knowledge. The academic knowledge gained has the greatest potential for the future. Straight Skills are restrictive for future use and as there are only so many hours in the day……

The result was a swing to degrees and theory (theory far cheaper than practical) – 50% gain degrees under Labour instead of the 4% under Tories – a vast improvement.. It meant that the 45% that never used to get degrees – get them.

I taught in the most deprived school (the one where all the children went to that other schools refused to take) in the most deprived area of London for 30 years -15 years ago. I watched Thatcher destroy an excellent Educational System – The Inner London Educational System – So that she could cut taxes to City Businesses. Resulting in class sizes rising from 20 to 35. .

What is required is something like the private school I went to (It catered for the military and colonial services) – There the children were taught, tested and examined weekly in classes of 20 for three months to truly gain an impression of their strengths and ability – because many children were from military backgrounds all practical subjects were initially taught as well as the arts. As we ‘progressed’ we dropped subjects to concentrate on those we had an aptitude for. So that our degree would reflect that aptitude. We were from the top 5% of ability range. I read Physics and then Mathematics at Uni. But had qualifications in Metalwork, Woodwork, Tech Drawing. Chemistry, Biology, English etc.

Sadly this costs money – This Government and previous Tory Governments are not interested in spending money on the less able or the poor. Labour were – but sadly the Schools rebuilding programme has been scrapped. So until Labour get back in – State secondary schools especially in deprived areas will always be treated as secondary.

To gain an “A” level in a practical subject will also require an “A” level in academic ability for it to be an “A” level.

Hi, there! I am cowboy builder.

I watched Stephen Lloyd’s speech here:

Blind people can read it in Hansard here:

There was no mention during the debate of the cost to the taxpayer of existing schemes like TrustMark of which I have no intention of being a member, nor the significant
number of hours which Police and Trading Standards Officers spend investigating my work or lack of it and, if they can gather the evidence which is difficult, prosecuting my offences of fraud or unfair trading, and nor of the Prison service which would provide for my welfare if got got nicked for fraud and, on release, I would be back on the streets doing exactly as did before as it is just so easy with so many vulnerable people around. So I find life is easy in the land of milk and honey and I do not worry much about what my activities are costing the taxpayer and would ignore compulsory licensing of contractors. Honest contractors in Scotland set up the Construction Licensing Executive, a charity to which they voluntarily pay licence fees. Mugs! I do not know what honest English and Welsh contractors do, and Northern Ireland is no place for cowboys like me as it is like a large village and I would not get very far without being fingered.

Neither the Police nor Trading Standards can tell you what the final bill is for their investigations of fraud and unfair trading by “contractors” like me as the detail cannot be extracted from their accounting systems. They have enough paperwork to deal with without being asked to do time-writing, but as I do not pay tax, you can ask them to do whatever you want as your are paying for it. Of course, HMRC is unable to collect tax from those who fail to declare their income and, like me, are outside of the CIS scheme, so cannot tell you how much tax is never collected, another large intangible number. I am reliably informed that even some within HMRC’s CIS scheme do not declare their full earnings and, if found out, are later required to put their tax affairs in order.

It is not just about protecting the elderly and vulnerable or the consumer, but it is also about crime reduction and protecting the taxpayer. Since I am not elderly nor vulnerable, not interested in crime reduction, and not a taxpayer, am I bothered? Of the foregoing, I am a consumer and as I care about my rights as a consumer, I fully support the Consumers Association and do pay a membership!

Please ignore Stephen Lloyd and his supporters, and hope that the Government will do nothing to make things hot for people like me.

Cowboy X X X

belinda says:
7 October 2014

I have had enough of builders in who over charge and do sub standard work. No offense to the good ones. I think the government should work with local council to ensure that anyone charging for building work is registerd and has an approved identity card to carry out any/ all aspects of building work. Should there be any reason for a customer to question the finished work, then they should be able to enlist the council to help them deal with the builder. I am currently hundreds of pounds out of pocket, stil with a building problem that needs to be put right at another cost of hundreds of pounds and anxiety and stress. [Edited] has been emotionally upsetting me for the last 3 weeks by saying he will put the work right, then he won’t, he says he’ll refund me…now he won’t…! Where do I go for help to make him take responsibility and so that he doesn’t do this to others..?!

The government and councils should have tighter controls and do more to stop this from happening and help the people who have been victims to these so called builders..!

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8 October 2014

You need to make a consumer complaint by telephoning 03454 04 05 06 and Citizens Advicw should pass your complaint to trading standards, who will investigate Dominic Borelli.