Property: Doctor on the house: 'Trust me, I'm a builder' ... well if you say so

A registration scheme would direct us to the professionals but the chance has been spurned, says Jeff Howell
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WHEN you go to the doctor, you naturally want to know that he or she is properly trained and qualified and has spent a few years studying, and then had a bit of supervised experience before being let loose on the general public. You don't demand to see the certificates before you make an appointment, but you are pretty sure that, if you asked, certificates could be produced.

You are confident that there are rules and regulations - laws, even - that prevent any old Tom, Dick and Harry setting up as a GP. It's the sort of thing that government is for, isn't it - spending our taxes on training and registration to protect the public. It's the same with dentists, solicitors, accountants. Architects, even.

So why is the Government so reluctant to introduce a registration scheme for builders? Home owners spend thousands of millions of pounds a year on building work, usually with no idea whether the builders have so much as a cycling proficiency badge. Anyone can turn up at your house and say: "I'm a builder, give me some money and I'll do some work for you."

This lack of training and qualifications results in a number of common errors. One is raising outside ground levels by laying new paths and patios on top of old ones - builders who do this do not realise they are increasing the risk of dampness inside. The use of strong cement mortars to repair or repoint old brickwork is another; very few builders have any idea that this can cause serious long-term damage. New double-glazed windows, chemically- treated timbers, silicone water-repellants - all these things have implications for the health of a building and its occupants, so is it right that they should be specified and installed by someone who has picked up his building knowledge down at the pub? But that's what happens.

Recently, a chance to rectify all this presented itself. Constructionline is the name of a register of building contractors and consultants approved by the Department of the Environment (DETR) for use in the public sector. It had been hoped that the register would be extended to the private sector and, in time, to domestic building - builders would be screened for qualifications and financial propriety, and their performance checked regularly: at last, a real opportunity to weed out the cowboy builders.

What happened? First, the Government decided that membership of the scheme should be voluntary - a mandatory system would, they say, be anti-competitive. Second, the concession to administer Constructionline is to be sold to a private company. The Chartered Institute of Building applied and was turned down, and none of the five firms shortlisted has any connection whatsoever with the building industry: they are mostly computer services firms. They may be good at compiling databases, but can they decide whether Fred the builder knows how to deal with a flat roof problem on a 1930s semi?

So what is happening here? Many other countries have mandatory registration schemes for builders, and their citizens are thus given a degree of protection. Maybe that's the reason - in Britain we are not citizens, we are still her Majesty's subjects. We do not seem to be entitled to the consumer protection enjoyed by other more modern states.

q You can contact Jeff Howell at the Independent on Sunday or by e-mail: