From India to Brazil to Egypt and in many other parts of the developing world, problems associated with ‘cowboy’ builders and dodgy and often illegal construction are well-documented.
In Brazil, at least six people were killed in January when three buildings – one at least 20 storeys high – collapsed in Rio De Janeiro, with the city’s mayor at the time saying that unauthorised construction in the tallest building may have altered its structure.
In India, meanwhile, Delhi’s High Court declared illegal construction to be a ‘menace’ which was ‘eating into our city’ back in February, dismissing a batch of petitions filed by 44 shop owners whose buildings had been sealed up after it was found that the building in which they operated had been constructed illegally.
As a growing number of cases continue to show, problems associated with dodgy building practices are not confined to the developing world.
“In the UK over the past few years we have seen loads of these so called builders pop up out of no-where, make a fortune, declare themselves bankrupt leaving customers and suppliers out of pocket then move on to a new area and do the same all over again,” says Chris Moyle, a voids surveyor at Osborne, a UK construction and engineering firm.
In Australia, meanwhile, Housing Industry Association (HIA) executive director for Tasmania Stuart Clues says that unlicensed operators are ‘rife’ in his state, where they account for as much as 27 per cent of all building work done, using a loophole in the state’s owner builder regime.
What are the problems/Why do they happen?
In order to gauge industry perceptions about the problem, DesignBuild Source recently talked with a number of building and construction professionals.
Common lament included:
- Overly lax requirements regarding setting up as a builder,
- Consumers and DIY builders being unaware of regulations,
- Black market operators, who avoid taxes and operate outside of legislation,
- Phoenix operators, who go bust, set up new companies and continue to trade, leaving debts in the old company with no assets to pay them,
- Lax oversight from councils and local authorities.
Along with the black market, the lack of requirements to set up as a builder irks a number of those with whom we spoke.
“You can buy a van, a set of ladders, call yourself any name you want and go out tomorrow morning and start trading as a builder” says Ronald Pye, managing director of Beat the Cowboy Builder in the UK. “No training, no knowledge, and worst of all nobody to stop you.”
Five Steps to Take to Stop Dodgy Operators
Among those with whom DesignBuild Source spoke, a number of suggestions were made.
1) Make Everyone Get a Licence
David Jones, editor-in-chief at ConstructSustaind.eu in the UK says all construction workers should be made to carry a license – not just parts of the industry.
Though acknowledging that experience in the UK suggests some problems remain even in areas controlled by licensing, accreditation and regulation, Jones uses the analogy of driving a car, noting that road safety is significantly enhanced by ensuring that all drivers first go through a period of training and assessment before they can get their licence.
2) Educate Owners
A further problem, Pye says, revolves around a lack of building regulation understanding on the part of property owners, who are easily led astray by ‘con men’ who provide misguided information in order to win work.
Pye believes the solution lies in one word: education. Toward this end, he has published a guide, Beat The Cowboy Builder, which advises everyday people about how to run their own project and protect themselves from unscrupulous operators.
3) Tighter Immigration Policies
Talking specifically about the situation in his home country of the UK, Jones believes one area which has fuelled the black economy revolves around the open borders of the EU.
While gang masters are fined up to £5k for every illegal worker, there are challenges in enforcing this and Jones says even ministers have acknowledged that there are probably thousands of illegal immigrants working in the UK black economy.
ConstructSustaind.eu is working on a pan-European standard of training along with an associated pan-EU H&S card system that will unify requirements across borders within the EU. Making the system compulsory, Jones feels, could substantially reduce problems in this area.
4) Limit how much work ‘backyard builders’ can do.
In absence of any total ban on unlicensed operators, as per Jones’ suggestion above, Clues says at least appropriate limits must be in place regarding how much work unqualified builders can do.
Clues’ organisation recently fought a successful campaign against moves in his state to raise the threshold which unqualified builders are allowed to perform on any one job from $AUD5,000 to $15,000.
5) Disclose who built the house.
A further change Clues is fighting for in his state is the mandatory disclosure in any residential sales contract of the identity of the builder who built the home.
Jones says proposed new disclosure requirements in his state designed to protect purchasers of existing homes are welcome but do not go far enough.
He wants the identity of the original builder to be disclosed so that prospective house purchasers can see if the house was built by an owner builder, an unqualified ‘backyard builder’ or a reputable accredited builder.
Time to Act
Kevin Bannister, a quantity surveyor at CRW Maintenance LTD and at Asset Management Property Maintenance in Nottingham, UK, says now is the time for action.
Bannister believes the biggest failure comes at the government level. He has called on the government in his country to act immediately to protect consumers.
Kevin Bannister, a quantity surveyor at Total FM Services Ltd in the UK says now is the time for action. “Cowboy builders heap misery upon the most vulnerable people, ripping them off for more money than anybody else ever possibly could, destroying their homes and leaving them in danger. Yet, whilst we have rafts of legislation regulating the curvature of a banana, we have nothing to protect consumers from these crooks.”