Will construction supply shortages dent safety progress?

supply shortages, construction, shortages,

The government’s bid to ‘build back better’ has reaffirmed an urgent need to improve construction output. Ian King, COO at Zeroignition, explains why Brexit and the pandemic have together created a storm within the industry

The latest ONS figures reveal construction output is rapidly declining. A lack of materials has pushed supply chains to their limit and the changes to shipping regulations has hampered the movement of goods between the UK and Europe. As a result, key building materials including timber, concrete and steel remain highly sought after yet supplies are diminishing, and fast too.

Since March 2020, timber and steel have experienced the most significant shortages. This is particularly frustrating for those working in timber construction, which had been enjoying a new surge in popularity, thanks to its unrivalled sustainability credentials and its ability to enable robust construction at speed.

The price of sawn or planed wood went up by 3% during April and May, and imported plywood prices also rose by 4%, having already risen by more than 12% between March and April this year. Looking year-on-year, imported plywood was over 29% more expensive in May than it was in 2020.

Fabricated steel is on par with timber, having increased by 6% in May and overall was up more than 38%, year-on-year.

A big concern

Our industry can be notoriously consumed by budgets and timelines. Now that local supply shortages are rife, will this enable the UK construction industry to accept sub-standard materials that may not have been held to the same high safety standards? And what will this mean for all the progress we’ve made in achieving improved fire safety? I am worried it could be undone by the race to just get the job done, despite the materials being unfit for use.

Since the Grenfell tragedy, the building industry has been working hard behind the scenes to tighten up processes and the forthcoming regulation has acted as a powerful driver for innovation. At Zeroignition we have certainly seen this first hand.

My hope is that the recent Building Safety Bill legislation will provide an essential step in ensuring safe builds without exception, and ensure fire safety remains at the forefront. The addition of meaningful sanctions will act as a powerful deterrent to those few companies who remain focused only on cost-down and tight timelines.

For the sake of everyone, I hope that this process accelerates. It’s over four years since the Grenfell disaster and three since the publication of the Hackitt Review, which starkly highlighted the systemic flaws.

The industry cannot afford to lose sight of the end goal, and we need to fully understand the regulatory regime so we can make appropriate decisions and move forward.

Innovation is key

The Government must allocate some of the intended investment to support third party product testing facilities. Sadly today, existing labs are facing overwhelming backlogs. No testing means no new and safer products coming to market.

There is one potential silver lining in all of this, for those brave enough to look outside the box. These shortages could see a sudden rise in the use of niche, lesser-known, quality products, which may have been previously overlooked – often due to price.

We know familiarity breeds confidence, and of course, cost will always be an important and swing factor in this industry particularly. However, when the go-to products are in short supply it opens up the market to the other innovative products that serve the exact same purpose, and in some cases provide much better quality. Meaning this shortage could ultimately result in better-built buildings.

As an industry, it is essential we all work together to ensure the buildings we are creating are fit to protect and preserve life, properly. Without this guarantee, we cannot rule out reliving horrific horrors of the past.

Times will be tough for the foreseeable future, but the industry simply cannot afford to scrimp on safety again.



Ian King




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