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Should domestic builders be licensed?

Domestic building work in the UK is largely unregulated. In this context we are not concerned with electrical and gas installations (which are already tightly controlled due to the obvious safety implications) but we are talking about general building work.

While the majority of builders are skilled, responsible and ethical in their approach – the image and reputation of the sector can be easily blighted by issues such as lack of competence, negligence and a poor approach to health and safety. Workers can put their lives at risk from inadequate situational awareness (for example when working at height) and they can easily endanger the safety of others if structures are badly erected through either ineptitude or sheer negligence.

The issue of competence in itself is not just about deploying the right skills and knowledge but needs to take into account the ‘behaviours’ of the workforce. We all know the dangers of falling asleep behind the wheel of a car, and there isn’t room for complacency when it comes to working on heavy and potentially dangerous building structures.

In essence – quality and safety are the two key elements in the debate. Are British consumers getting appropriate quality from domestic contractors and are they safe enough – both for themselves and for others?

Another ensuring issue beloved of the press and media (we’ve all seen those television programmes) is the blight of rogue trading – those who seek to exploit more vulnerable consumers for commercial gain – which is an understandably sensitive topic for companies which trade legally and safely.

So what can and should be done about these various issues? And is there a case for licensing domestic builders? The idea of licensing has in fact been a hot topic from several of our recent research projects and it’s certainly one which divides opinion within Government and across industry in the UK. The reality is that if you travel to some parts of the USA and Australia you’ll find that licensing systems already operate, but in the UK we have been sailing the tide of de-regulation for quite some time. And the reality is that anyone in the UK can theoretically call themselves a builder.

If domestic builders in the UK were to be licensed, what should that seek to achieve? Should the focus be on regulating workforce competence and guaranteeing a certain standard of work? Is it about having confidence that the right health and safety procedures are followed at all times to protect the workforce and the general public? And what about protecting and safeguarding consumers against the rogue element of the industry?

In 2013 we completed a study for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look at how domestic builders operate in other countries. Licensing schemes in certain US States and Australian territories tend to work using initial accreditation processes, as well as sanctions such as fines, revocation of licences, loss of bonds, and potentially even criminal proceedings if a trader fails to meet the required standards. In some systems such as that in New York, traders have their fingerprints taken so that identification can be assured. In other US States the licensed trader has to deposit quite large bonds and prove high levels of insurance cover in order to obtain their licences.

Would similar approaches work in the UK?

We recently led a study to test out, through a tripartite lens of competence, health and safety and consumer protection, the potential for a system of licensing. There are already many voluntary schemes which exist to help consumers make an informed choice about who they can ‘trust’ – but this arguably presents quite a confusing marketplace. To what extent do these schemes really vouch for the trader’s quality of work and their commitment to protecting the safety of the public? Most cannot do so, nor do they claim that to be the case, but the reality is that consumers could have quite a different impression.

Any system of licensing would also need to be properly marketed and clearly recognised by all concerned. This would need to be accompanied by a programme of awareness-raising and consumer education. Price is often the key deciding factor (as well as reliance on family or friends to do a job), but this may not always be the best course of action.

The new Consumer Rights Bills (currently passing through Parliament) gives consumers the right to ask a trader to repeat a job or to reduce the price if substandard products or services have been provided. But is the UK going far enough?

The debate continues.


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