The Government has recently pledged to build one million new homes over [this] Parliament and low interest rates and schemes such as Help to Buy continue to be very beneficial for the house-building industry. This, along with the current shortage of housing supply, presents a huge opportunity for the roofing and cladding sector over the next five years.
Although one million homes sounds a little ambitious, it is actually only 200,000 homes a year, still short of the target needed to meet demand for housing in the UK. However, this is a significant increase if you look at house-building rates between 2011 and 2014. According to the National Housing Federation, only 457,490 houses were constructed during this period, as opposed to the 974,000 homes that should have been built to meet the country’s housing needs.
Recently there has clearly been a noticeable shift in attitude towards house-building in the UK, as the chronic lack of housing means there is now cross-party political support for the industry to increase volumes of housing. Help to Buy has been extended until 2020 which gives more certainty and there are an increasing number of competitive mortgages available, with some lenders even reducing the amount of deposit required. As a result, the Construction Products Association predicts that private house-building is expected to rise by 9% in 2015 and 5.5% in 2016.
This boost is very welcome news for both house-builders and their roofing and cladding sub-contractors. However, there are widespread concerns that skills shortages and the resulting rising labour rates could threaten the UK’s ability to deliver on the Government’s house-building targets. Indeed, labour and management shortages have been named as one of the biggest threats to growth in the construction industry.
Turning down work
It was only two months ago we were warned by the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) that two thirds of small and medium construction firms were turning down work because they do not have the staff to carry it out.
Since the end of 2013, there has been a huge upturn in the availability of roofing and cladding work, with not enough skilled labour to meet demand, with a recent FMB survey showing that it is particularly hard to find roofers in the south east. The sector, like others within the construction industry, has serious skills gaps. While the Government’s plans to create three million more apprentices by 2020 and the introduction of many apprenticeship schemes by contractors and the NFRC will help in the long run, labour is needed now if the industry is to capitalise on the immediate house-building opportunity.
Due to the lack of work between 2007 and 2012, many roofers left the industry but positive feedback from merchants suggests that some of these are now coming back, which will help ease the burden while we wait for more apprentices to come through the system.
As a manufacturer, it has become even more important for us to work with contractors to try and help them overcome the time, cost and skills challenges that they face now, so they can take on more work.
One very noticeable example of this is with product development and how the types of tiles and accessories we bring to market has started to change over the years. Almost every product we launch now is ‘easy-to-fix’ or ‘easy-to-lay’ and is designed with time-saving in mind, although there is clearly still demand for traditional products like our new handmade clay tiles.
Designing out specialist skills
Much of our research and development investment now goes into developing tiles and accessories that not only save time, but also don’t require specialist skills, because we are seeing such demand from contractors and merchants. Recent product innovations include SoloFix, a one piece clip and nail, which saves 30% on roof clipping time and was developed to help meet the new BS 5534 requirements for extra clipping. We have also launched two low pitch clay interlocking tiles, Maxima and Melodie, which make it possible to achieve a clay aesthetic with the easy-to-lay benefits of a concrete interlocking tile.
Recently, we have seen significant demand for thin leading edge slate effect tiles, such as our Edgemere and fibre cement products, which give the natural slate aesthetic but don’t require specialist skills. Dry fix products continue to be very popular, particularly with the new BS 5534 requirements, because they are mortar free, quick to fix and provide the necessary ventilation as well.
Products that can be used across trades are also one way we are helping house-builders address labour shortages. For example, our Cedral cladding range can be fitted by any trade on site and has a clamp so that one person, rather than two can fix it, freeing up resource to be used elsewhere on site. We also launched our Vertigo fibre cement slates last year, which are specifically designed for vertical tiling and can be quickly installed by roofers or joiners.
We are always interested in hearing from contractors about what products and services we could develop to help them overcome the challenges they face. The Government’s focus on boosting house-building is undoubtedly a huge opportunity for the roofing and cladding industry, but to capitalise on it suppliers, contractors and trade associations all need to work together to help address skills and labour shortages, whether that be through boosting apprenticeships, encouraging more roofers back into the industry, making the most of free training or using more time saving products.