The Man of the Leak

The big thaw and burst pipes made it the week of the plumber. JoJo Moyes on the heroes and the cowboys

AS THE Great Freeze became the Great Thaw last week, many thousands of us up and down the country shared a sickening experience.

Perhaps we woke in the night to smell that sinister, mouldy dampness in the air; or we heard the plink-plink of dripping water and realised with horror that it was inside the house; or a crash brought us running to the living-room, where half the ceiling lay in a dirty puddle on the floor. Most sickening of all, many of us returned from a festive New Year away from home to find a grey stream trickling out under the front door, and within, rooms awash, carpets, wallpaper and furniture ruined.

Nature had broken into our homes, sabotaged our pipes and left a very nasty mess. And what did we do? We called the plumber. Rarely, if ever, can there have been such a stampede for the services of these people. Demand was such that many plumbers had waiting lists of two or three days on calls; often working round the clock, they did business worth many millions of pounds.

At times like this, our plumbers may deserve the heroic status of an emergency service, up there with firemen and ambulance drivers, but it never seems to work out that way. For they have an image problem.

WE ALL know them. The sharp sucking of the teeth, the slow shake of the head and the upended lardy backside, replete with spanner in one back pocket and mobile phone in another, all to be viewed beneath liberal inches of bottom cleavage.

We need our plumbers, but we worry. We don't know whether he (it is almost always a he) is doing a good job. We don't know whether somebody else would do it more cheaply. We don't know whether that somebody else would have turned up, or would turn up next time. Like it or not, we have to trust him, a bit. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't.

Take yesterday: the Labour Party's consumer affairs spokesman, Nigel Griffiths, demanded action from the Government against plumbers who cashed in on the thaw. "One of my constituents told me that it cost pounds 350 for a plumber to visit his Edinburgh flat," he said. "The remedial action was botched, and another plumbing firm who sorted out the problem only charged pounds 70."

He went on: "Reports of profiteering are rife. Some of these charges are criminal. Up and down the country people are suffering, yet ministers are doing nothing to clamp down on these abuses. Help should be given to recover over-charges and action must be taken to stop future abuses."

The memory is fresh of the plumber from Basingstoke who charged Doris Lenson, a widow, pounds 822 to unblock her loo last month. After taking three and a half hours to fix it, the plumber, warning Mrs Lenson that the bill was "a bit steep", filled out her credit card payment and cleared the amount with Barclaycard.

It was only after he had left that Mrs Lenson put on her glasses and looked at the bill. "I almost fainted," she said. He had charged pounds 130 an hour labour, pounds 70 for a pressure jet to clear the blockage and pounds 120 VAT. The boss of the company eventually agreed to waive the charge, saying that it had been a "misunderstanding".

At the Institute of Plumbing in London, Roger Willis admits that the recent thaw brought out the worst as well as the best of his trade.

"In Northumberland [one of the areas worst hit by last week's thaw], we've heard that there are plumbers coming in from other areas. And people calling themselves plumbers are knocking on doors - unqualified cowboys," he said.

Trade associations felt strongly enough to issue warnings against cowboys, saying they were "incensed that unscrupulous plumbers were 'ripping off' the general public and causing immeasurable damage to the plumbing industry in general".

But it's not just the cowboys. Plumbing's bad image goes beyond a lack of trust, to a sort of popular distaste.

Precious few plumbers are immortalised in literature or popular song - an honour accorded even to the humble milkman (Benny Hill's "Ernie") and the detested traffic warden (the Beatles' "Lovely Rita"). When, in "Second Hand Rose", Barbra Streisand made reference to "Jake the plumber, the man I adore", it was only because he "had the nerve to tell me he'd been married before".

Those who do achieve fame usually do so as the result of something unpleasant, such as the Dyno-Rod plumber who discovered the remains of one of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen's victims when unblocking a drain in north London. Even Jean-Luc Dehaene, the Belgian Prime Minister, achieved his nickname "the Plumber" from his reputation as an arch fixer of sometimes dubious political deals.

Roger Willis admits mournfully: "It's not a sexy occupation. The poor old plumber always seems to be the butt of jokes." Jokes? Asked if he could remember one, he said he could not immediately to think of any.

How many plumbers are there? Mr Willis's institute boasts a membership of 12,500, but that is only the tip of the iceberg. "There are only anecdotal figures for the number of people calling themselves plumbers," he said. "But we estimate it to be between 200-250,000."

The number of apprenticeships has dropped by 82 per cent in the past 12 years, but the shortfall has largely been made up by NVQs, or National Vocational Qualifications, which are new state tests with common standards between trades. Mr Willis detects a sorry trend: the latest figures suggested that 50 per cent of those taking them were the unemployed, as opposed to people who actively wanted to learn the craft.

"Nobody wants to be a plumber any more," he said. "They all want to do media studies and hairdressing."

IN this respect Mark Rolph, a plumber from Finchley in London, could be said to be typical. He never set out to be a plumber, he said, and retains an alternative career as a male model. ("This is the first time I've ever been photographed for my tools," he said, brandishing his spanner.)

Having notched up nine years in the trade, he said he could not say that he "loved his job", but that he found it hard to match with anything that provided the same standard of income. It was not a profession, he indicated, that inspired passion in the same way as modelling. And it did not have the same aesthetic rewards as other professional trades.

"With a builder or a decorator, at the end of the job they can stand back and admire their work," he said. Less easy, and less immediately compelling was a U-bend. Customers were only really interested in it once it stopped working.

"And with us, like electricians, you've got to make it work as well. You don't get a chippie called out in the middle of the night by someone saying 'I've got a problem with my shelves', do you?

"People can't just 'hang on' with plumbing emergencies, so it's the main unsociable job," he added. "We're on 24-hour call. I've just done someone who thought their boiler was going to blow up, and one department store whose pipes had burst. When you get called out you've just got to think 'it's money', and you've just got to do it. But it's a nightmare if you want to have a drink or something. I mean you can't say 'sorry, the plumber's drunk'."

The majority of plumbers, he said, were conscientious and would not leave until the customer - no matter how exacting - was satisfied. But occasionally, he said, even he had been stumped.

"I've had two jobs in all that time where I've sat back after a couple of hours and thought, 'I'm just going to call a plumber,' " he said. "But then I think 'well, I'm a plumber'. In those cases you've got to go away, and come back and look at it with a fresh eye."

Curiously, the worst part of his job, he said, was not the late-night call-outs, or even the pungent drains or blocked toilets. It was changing bathroom taps - a job, he says, which makes plumbers cringe. "I'm not keen on that," he said. "You've got such a small gap to go in and you can be there forever trying to get them off."

The other was being called out to fix what cowboy plumbers had done. Or not. "You can normally tell because they don't solder joints properly," he said. "I heard the story about the woman charged pounds 800. It's bad, but I think whatever trade you're in you're going to get cowboys. If someone can make a fast buck and he's the kind of person who can mug off an old woman..."

ACCORDING to many of the trade organisations, the problem of cowboys might be relieved by the introduction of statutory registration, as currently exists in Australia and New Zealand, and has recently become compulsory in this country for gas-fitters.

It would also, said Roger Willis, help elevate the professional status of the plumber.

"There are certain areas of plumbing where a lot of skill is needed," he emphasised. "Perhaps not in an ordinary domestic installation, but in office blocks and hotels."

While deficient gas-fitting obviously posed a greater risk to life than badly-fitted washers, he said, as plumbing became more technically advanced, the skills needed became more complex and demanding.

"To take a silly example, you've probably seen the film Towering Inferno where they explode the water tank at the top? Well that wouldn't actually happen, but there are things like Legionnaire's Disease which can result from bad plumbing installations.

"So while we're not saying people get killed by bad plumbing, as the technology of plumbing increases it becomes more and more important that those doing it are qualified."

Robin Newhouse of the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Mechanical Services Contractors, (3,000 members) agreed. "The most important thing in this cowboy aspect is not just the amount of money they're making but that the customers are ending up with an inferior job. It could be dangerous - for instance with gas central heating, it's a potentially explosive situation."

He said that most plumbers would welcome the removal of "the cowboy element" and believed that plumbers got a bad press. In fact, he positively eulogised them.

"I think they're a very conscientious bunch of people," he said. "They don't sing their own praises a lot, they're just there. Any plumber who was well respected would always turn out for you. He'd make sure you were always sorted out."

Mr Newhouse said people should "get to know a plumber". "Those that have their own plumbers use them all the time and are happy," he said. "Those that don't, panic and only call people out when in dire straits. At that point they don't know who they're calling ... they just go through the Yellow Pages. They could be getting anyone."

Indeed, in November a survey by the Automobile Association, now big in the insurance business, showed that trading standards officers were swamped with more than 45,000 complaints about home maintenance and repairs last year.

Noting that calling in a plumber now costs a minimum of pounds 66, AA Home Assistance Services said that the average householder was "resigned to being ripped off" when confronted with an emergency in the home.

And customers create the opportunity for rip-offs, Mr Newhouse said, by knowing nothing about the workings of the plumbing system in their homes. "People phone us and ask us where their stopcock is," he said. "You're going to look pretty silly if your plumber walks into your airing cupboard, turns it off and charges you pounds 50 for it. But when water's flooding through the ceiling people don't think properly."

Householders, he said, did not treat their house as a priority "as long as it's not falling down. It's like people who don't get their car serviced and then wonder why it breaks down."

To help rectify this, and as part of its "Beat the Cowboy" campaign, the National Association of Plumbing, Heating and Mechanical Services Contractors has produced an information sheet to help customers prepare for emergencies and guard against being ripped off. It includes sections encouragingly entitled "Know Your Stopcocks" and urging householders to "Now Listen To The Valves".

The British, say the plumbing associations, should be proud of their plumbing. Indeed, we British have a special heritage, having introduced plumbing to the rest of the world.

"There was a big surge shortly after the Napoleonic wars," said Roger Willis. "We developed our system which primarily involved storage tanks in lofts. It was developed in days when water supplies weren't as reliable, so that householders always had a water supply."

He said Britain is now the only country in the world where houses still have storage tanks in lofts and the problems with burst piping over the past few days may owe something to that anomaly. "The more equipment you have to go wrong, the more will," said Mr Newhouse. "It can be more expensive because of the increased work."

Plumbing may be an unglamorous trade, and the stories of cheating and botching are certainly legion, but Darren Conquer, of All Clear Plumbing in Edinburgh, gave us a timely reminder of the other side when he heard of yesterday's criticism from Labour's Nigel Griffiths. Plumbers have no monopoly on dishonesty, he said. "I have at least four bounced cheques totalling pounds 2,000."

Perhaps we can take heart from the example of one plumber, who went on to some success in an alternative career. In his second week as an apprentice, he was holding a ladder for his boss when an attractive woman walked by.

Distracted, he accidentally directed his blowtorch at his boss's feet, setting them alight. "The nails on his boots were red hot," he observed. He was sacked, but it didn't matter: his name was Bob Hoskins.

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