There is much talk about how Brexit will affect the building and construction labour market this week. But less is being said about the potential shortage of building materials, an equally concerning prospect.
Last week Teresa May pledged at the Tory Conference to make it nigh on impossible for “unskilled” foreign workers to enter the UK. Even leaving aside the fact that these “unskilled workers” are vital o the UK construction industry – low skill does not necessarily equal low value to a project – and that recruiting and training British replacements will not be an overnight task, it ignores the fact that these “unskilled” workers may have no materials to actually build in April next year.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the industry knows that a woefully small amount of building materials are manufactured in the UK. In fact, over the period from Quarter 1 1984 to Quarter 2 2017, construction materials imports have increased, on average per quarter by 3.8%. That’s per quarter. The EU is by far our biggest source of building material imports. A study from the Department for Business Skills and Innovation estimated that 64% of building materials are imported from the EU. And according to a government report published this year, more than £10 billion of construction materials came from the EU last year – more than three times what we import from China.
Even if supply doesn’t stop completely, things will surely get more expensive.
So, should the tap be turned off, even temporarily, where will these materials come from? Some materials are already in short supply. Blocks, roofing materials and insulation materials are already scarce. And ask some of the major brick suppliers about a delivery and you will get much sucking of teeth and shaking of heads.
Even if supply doesn’t stop completely, things will surely get more expensive. A weaker pound will lead to the rising costs for imports and, given the way Brexit negotiations have been going so far, the UK could lose tariff-free access to the single market, as well as facing the imposition of duties and limits on quantities.
So maybe it’s a good thing that we won’t have any brickies on UK construction sites next year. Because there is every chance they won’t have any bricks to lay.