Survey after survey over recent months has confirmed the same picture: although sales and imports of building materials have soared, demand is outstripping supply. Coupled with a shortage of lorry drivers to keep the supply chain moving, the result is rising prices and project delays.
The price of building materials has gone up by more than 20% in the past year overall, latest official statistics show.
Construction output in Great Britain has fallen every month since April according to the Office for National Statistics. A recent survey by Gleeds found that 84% of contractors, consultants, and architects reported delays to projects as a result of materials issues.
The UK is more reliant on imported building materials than ever before, and therefore changes to its trading relationships has been an added complicating factor.
The National Federation of Builders (NFB) and the House Builders Association (HBA) say that materials shortages are obstructing the government from realising its house-building and construction ambitions. They are calling for government intervention to help with the problems.
NFB chief executive Richard Beresford said: “The NFB and HBA is calling on the government to put out a ministerial statement telling councils they should show greater flexibility on materials changes, such as bricks, as well as not serve completion notices when a project is clearly delayed.”
He said that builders cannot wait up to 13 weeks for a council to say ‘yes’ to changing, for example, a brick type, as that brick may then be unavailable. They also cannot be served completion notices on projects, which triggers them to pay council tax on unfinished homes.
Delays also harm home-buyers, who may struggle to retain existing lending offers and end up paying some fees multiple times.
Rico Wojtulewicz, head of housing at the House Builders Association (HBA), the housebuilding division of the NFB, said: “The government is at a crossroads. Due to reduced productivity, Covid has made the broken planning system even more inefficient and material shortages will put the final nail in coffin for some SMEs. Every HBA board member I have spoken to supports our short-term recommendations on project material flexibility and delaying completion notices because they are not only worried for their own businesses but the sector as a whole.”
Richard Beresford also said that the government should identify the imported materials on which the UK is overly reliant, such as timber, and support British industries working to solve that, such as those investing in cross laminated timber (CLT).
Reducing the UK’s trade deficit in construction materials by 50% was one of the four main targets in the Construction 2025 strategy published by the government in 2013. At that time, in 2013, the UK exported £6bn-worth of building materials and components each year, and imported £12bn – a £6bn trade deficit in the sector.
Delivering Construction 2025 was the rationale behind the creation of the Construction Leadership Council. Its success would be judged on hitting the targets.
The target trade deficit for building materials is £3bn by 2025. By 2019 it had risen from £6bn to £10.4bn. It came down in 2020 to £9.2bn, and then fell again in the first quarter of 2021, by 6%. However, in the second quarter of 2021, the quarterly trade deficit in building materials and components widened by £126m to £3.06bn, an increase of 4.3%.
The 2025 target has not yet been officially abandoned but it seems that not much is being done to achieve it.