Short supply


Brian Berry, CEO of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), explores how the shortage of construction materials is constraining small builders’ ability to ‘build back better.’

Since the coronavirus pandemic, many small to medium-sized (SME) construction firms have struggled to access the materials they need. Builders can no longer rely on arriving at their local builders merchants and being sure that they will have a particular product in stock.

Key building materials are in short supply, including timber, cement, steel, roofing products and insulation. Furthermore, the latest data from the FMB’s State of Trade Survey found that 93 per cent of builders reported material price increases in the first quarter of 2021, and 92 per cent predicted that they would continue to rise into Q2. Anecdotal feedback suggests that the cost of some materials, like timber, has risen by 50 per cent, and the price of cement has risen by 30 per cent.

The pandemic limited activity in the manufacturing industry in 2020, which has led to a backlog in orders and excessive delays. But issues continue to be posed by Brexit, including the new rules on hauliers transporting goods between the EU and the UK. The shortage of drivers in the UK has compounded delays and the longer lead-in times for basic products and materials.

These supply chain issues have led to a perfect storm, as output is booming around the world, especially in the US and China. Indeed, the State of Trade Survey found that enquiries for building work in the UK were at their highest levels in more than 10 years.

The FMB is working closely with the representatives of merchants and manufacturers, under the umbrella of the Construction Leadership Council, to share information and communicate the causes and origins back to the industry. We must use all the opportunities we can to communicate these issues to consumers so that they know that it’s now more important than ever to work closely and communicate with their builder.

Local builders are disproportionately impacted by these shortages compared to those who can buy in advance and in large quantities. This means smaller firms are struggling to complete their projects on time and are facing extra pressure on their cashflow. Builders are juggling their workloads much more than usual, as different materials become available at different times. It’s essential that materials are made available not only to larger infrastructure projects, but also to the small, independent merchants that builders typically use.

A lack of materials will hamper the ability of the construction industry to lead our economic recovery and contribute to the build back better agenda. Local builders should be at the heart of plans to build new homes, retrofit our existing stock with energy efficiency measures, and train the next generation of apprentices. If they do not have access to the materials they need, none of this can happen. The FMB has written to Government Ministers to warn of the serious impact that this will have on builders’ output. We must work together to find a solution to these shortages as a matter of urgency.