When the ConstructionSkills Certification Scheme (CSCS) Heritage Skills Cards were introduced two years ago, many specialist contractors saw a chance to certify long standing traditional crafts. Steve Menary listens to some concerns specialists have about maintaining standards.

The National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) introduced cards for 15 trades including fibrous plasterer and solid plasterer. Some tradespeople were able to secure cards through grandfather rights, but the introduction of Heritage cards brought in a requirement for training to NVQ level 3.

“We saw it would benefit our credibility and ensure our built heritage was in good hands,” says Sue Clifford, business development manager at Ornate Interiors, the Pudsey-based specialist that won a special award for craftsmanship at the National Federation of Builders awards for work on restoring Stockport’s listed Plaza Cinema.

“It was our understanding it was compulsory for all staff employed on a heritage project involving Heritage Lottery Funding, English Heritage and National Trust to hold the CSCS Heritage Card.”

Instead of being compulsory, the cards seem to have been forgotten. “It’s my experience that some clients are letting contractors employ staff without a CSCS heritage card to do heritage work,” says Terry Wright of Sheffield-based Troika Contracting.

“All I ever hear is ‘There’s no-one left who can do this [work]’. What this actually means is that clients don’t want to employ the people who make a living out of heritage work but would rather get it done for nothing by some college or university.

“Heritage [work] needs people who know the difference between horse-hair reinforced lime plaster from 1860 on laths and render and skim on expanded metal from 1960. They can make the judgment on whether an item should be kept or scrapped – these people need to be paid for their knowledge and expertise.

“Over a long period I’ve seen examples where perfectly good original plaster was pulled down because the company doing the work did not have the expertise to preserve it, and the opposite when I’ve been asked to preserve modern replica work when I could bring the quality back to that of the original.”

Jonathan Riley, managing director at Essex-based Locker & Riley, is equally frustrated. He says: “I’m very disappointed most clients are not prepared to place a conditional requirement for only heritage trained CSCS card holders to be employed on listed buildings.”

Instead of becoming an essential requirement, many specialists feel that main contractors do not even know about the cards. Jenny Harrison, marketing manager at West Country specialist Hayles and Howe, says: “At the time we thought this was a great idea [but] only one contractor has asked us if we have them. I can only think the majority of contractors are unaware heritage cards exist.”

This is not always the case and Terry Wright cites English Heritage as an example of a good employer; but Renee Fok from English Heritage says: “We encourage anyone needing traditional plasterwork on a listed or traditional building to use an individual with a CSCS Heritage Card but have no authority to make that happen.”

Last autumn, a pilot began that saw the CSCS Heritage Skills Card became a requirement for specialist lead-workers on projects on any English Heritage sites. Why leadwork? “Leadwork was chosen because the Lead Contractors Association had been very active in encouraging uptake of the card in their trade,” adds Renee Fok. “We hope that this will encourage other trade federations to support their staff to obtain the card.”

The issue of heritage cards was brought up at a recent Federation of Plastering and Drywall Contractors’ technical committee. FPDC technical consultant Steve Halcrow says: “We asked the contractors what they wanted us to do about it. The contractors who have cards want them enforced as it helps them to remain part of a qualified elite, but aren’t too keen on others having them as it results in competition. We’ve said we will try wherever we can to champion their cause and encourage contractors to do the right thing.”

In response, CSCS chief executive Graham Wren says:  “Whilst CSCS administers the card scheme it is up to individual contractors to put their own systems in place for card checking. We believe a rigorous system for checking all CSCS cards is in the interests of both the company and the individual in helping to raise competency standards across the industry.”

Steve Halcrow adds: “Main contractors talk a good game saying they will only use properly carded workforce, but when the chips are down that narrows down their opportunities and builds in extra cost, at which point they conveniently forget their principles in my experience.”

For specialists such as Ornate, that is simply not good enough. Sue Clifford says: “We’ve invested time and money into a competent workforce whose knowledge and expertise means nothing when someone in the chain just wants to save a few bucks. This isn’t just about the work we lose to cheaper bidders; it’s also about the inferior products and skills we find are being employed on some very prestigious heritage projects.”

Ornate - the Close Newscastle

Ornate has asked the chairman of NFB’s Heritage Group to raise the issue with the NHTG, but perhaps the UK Contractors Group would be a better port of call for an issue that looks unlikely to go away.