Thursday, 2 January 2014

Trade off

What day is it? Having spent much of the last week living like a borrower – scurrying around on my hands and knees under a stranger’s floorboards – I’ve somewhat lost track of time. What? No, no… I’m not an extreme stalker, nor a Romanian refugee from justice; in these straitened times you have to take the work when you can and I’ve been rewiring a house. ‘Scurrying’ is, of course, a massive overstatement having, as I do, the agility of a beached aquatic mammal.

Construction work used to be a lucrative trade, especially for the more technical aspects and while not a protected occupation in any real sense, still used to afford a decent living for anybody willing to get a little dirty and suffer the odd scrape and strain in the process. But for all the talk of apprenticeships there is little evidence that, outside of the large firms with access to prestige projects, clients are willing to pay the price for a trained, indigenous workforce.

In fact, for all the technological progress in all walks of life, the general domestic building stock is maintained not by an army of highly skilled, conscientious craftsmen, but bodged together by the cheapest labour to hand and covered over with whatever cosmetic finish fits the questionable tastes of the day. So while a few, long-established family firms survive to serve those loyal customers with long memories and still-brimming coffers, the majority of the work is awarded purely on cost with little regard for potential consequences.

Just as in so many areas of life you place your property and potentially your well-being in the hands of somebody whose qualifications you neither know nor understand and hope for the best. But while (you would hope) an incompetent doctor would never be allowed to lay his hands on you and could at least be brought to book for malpractice, the building trade – despite many governing laws - is effectively uncontrolled except by voluntary membership to organisations you’ve probably never heard of.

All those logos you see lined up on the back doors of trade vans? Some are long-established, highly respected outfits with rigid scrutineering processes… and some of them are, to all intents and purposes, just logos. You really have no idea what you’re getting and the blokes in those vans are probably entirely detached from whatever oversight exists. Most building industry, self-regulating schemes operate on tight budgets and rely on occasionally assessing the competence of a single qualified supervisor, rather than on actually judging a properly representative sample of the work. I know of one firm employing thousands of tradesmen who pass this process – for their electricians at least – by annually gathering the supervisors together for a chat and lunch. (Oh and they are financed entirely by the public purse)

"I'm sure the fuse box is here somewhere."

So the moral of my little ramble today is that it’s not so much a case of ‘you get what you pay for’ but that no matter what you pay, you have little idea what you’re getting. You may engage the services of a local firm, taking pride in their work and sticking around to offer you reassurance and warranty. Or you can save a few bob by accepting the lowest tender and hoping for the best. Much like the last two governments’ immigration policies.


  1. Couldn't agree more.

    After 40-odd years in the construction industry (professionals way of saying building trade) it still never ceases to amaze me at the depth of ignorance and incompetence of some supposedly master builders.

    Fortunately (or unfortunately for the cowboys) the glazing, gas-fitting and electrical trades are now regulated and controlled by Building Control Officers. This body of men (and the occasional woman) are often under-estimated in the way they have upped standards in the industry, but unfortunately aren't involved in a lot of minor works.

    Also agree the traditional skills are being degraded by all the wonder materials available and the use of so much plant and machinery.

    And that most projects are awarded based purely on cost, not necessarily value.

    Sadly a lot of house-owners, as you say, don't understand or appreciate the difference between a good job and a botched one.

    1. Actually,the trades you mention are the LEAST likely to have oversight by LABC, all being subject to self-certification schemes, often known colloquially as a 'Cowboys' Charters'.

      It is simplicity in itself to gain the minimum qualifications to enroll and then blag your way through an 'annual' inspection. I have dealt with all these trades, from apprentices through to trainers and all say they are appalled at how little the schemes are effectively policed.

      The cowboys aren't dead - they just have shiny vans with logos on now!

  2. If you think you are going to get cr*p, you should pay as little for it as possible... Entirely rational.

    Your suggestion that doctors are different seems rather odd given Mid Staffs et al. Heck a German locum killed someone with an opiates overdose.. German... not even eastern european... (then again...).

    Let people choose what qualification they value - even if it is personal recommendation of colour of the service providers eyes - its their money.

  3. I had a builder in once who, while his bricklaying was okay, did a terrible job with anything wooden. He put in two door frames that weren't level and when I asked if he had used spirit level he said a good builder had no need.

    I pointed out that there was a distinct slope on both of the door frame lintels and his reaction was: "Let's call six of one and half a dozen of the other."

    I can only presume this is some sort of in-trade joke or secret code that is meant to confuse the paying customer.