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The Great British Brick Shortage!


How did the humble, traditional brick become the elephant in the room?

The newspapers are full of articles about house prices – it’s become an obsession of the British media. Depending on which news outlet/s you favour you’ll be well aware that rocketing asking prices are a result of either the greenbelt being sacrosanct or companies land banking or government not lifting the caps on borrowing of local government housing revenue accounts or all of the above!

In recent months a more basic barrier to house building has started appear on the media radar – the Great British Brick Shortage.

The RICS UK Construction Market Survey (Q2 2014) revealed that brick imports were 63% higher than in Q2 2013 and compounding the problem 59% of respondents reported shortages of bricklayers and 51% reported a shortage of managerial workers.

Reports that the shortage is now causing house builders significant problems are widespread. With imports, a house builder has to buy enough to cover an entire development so as to ensure the continuity of brick colour over a large development – failure to order enough may cause problems later.

Radical solutions have been sought to prevent construction stoppages; we have even heard of house builders talking to each other about setting up their own manufacturing operations for example.

One house builder has recently run into trouble with a planning authority, who having approved a development based on one brick sample, are now less than pleased to find this approved brick is not available and the alternative is not to their liking. If a compromise is not possible between the council and the house builder it’s not inconceivable there will be a delay of a year while they wait for supplies of the approved brick.

Similarly, just this week, a planner attended a design meeting and asked why the architect was not using bricks for the new scheme under discussion, the answer was simple – with the supply shortages it’s safer to use steel and glass and avoid traditional bricks.

As with everything though, and always the case in the world of planning and development there is another side to this tale of woe. Simon Hay, Chief Executive Officer for the BDA has, as reported in professional builder, strongly refuted the idea of a shortage:  “You only have to look at the statistics and forecasts from the Construction Products Association (CPA) to prove that these claims are completely unfounded.  Housing starts in Great Britain during 2013 are estimated to have increased by 24% and forecast to increase further in 2014 by 16% and 10% in 2015.  Clearly house builders have been able to acquire sufficient brick supplies to significantly increase house building.

In explanation of the current fears of a shortage Brian Green pointed out in brickonomics back in February that it is unlikely to be permanent being caused primarily by house builders who were encouraged by easier credit to begin restocking to both meet current demand and future higher levels of production which caught suppliers by surprise, meanwhile manufacturers had apparently let their stocks dwindle.

Furthermore, although it is undeniable that a shortage of bricks is of immediate concern to many trying to get consented projects off the ground, if you look at it from a different perspective it has positive implications, for example the areas which have seen factories mothballed can now look forward to many being re-opened and the jobs which will be created as a result.

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