Reflections from 1995 - how has UK clay brick manufacturing fared?

Clay Technology magazine
12 Jun 2011
John Sandford

John Sandford, Director of Technical Services for Wienerberger Ltd and Chairman of the Brick Development Association Manufacturing Steering Group, travels back in time to see how accurate some of the predictions he made in Clay Technology in January 1995 turned out to be.  

The article I wrote for this magazine 16 years ago – The Industry View – was part of an Institute of Clay Technology (ICT) seminar held that year at Accrington brickworks. Much of the content was crystal ball gazing as to what may happen to the UK clay brick manufacturing industry over the next 10 to 15 years. There is, therefore, some merit in looking back over some of the predictions to see how accurate – or not – they have turned out to be.

In early 1995, Michael Ankers had just been appointed as Chief Executive of the Brick Development Association – now he is performing a similar but much higher profile role for the Construction Products Association. Hanson Brick had just been launched as the umbrella brand for Butterley Brick and London Brick products with Richard Manning as Chief Executive. The ICT had over 1,150 members and Dougie Woodburn was President. There were around 140 active clay brick factories in the UK (currently the number is less than 70) and UK annualised brick sales were running at just over 3.2 billion (the 2010 market was around 1.5 billion).

In 1995, risk assessment was a relatively new approach to health and safety management. Sustainability, as a concept related to construction and construction products, had just been invented. I recall a colleague commenting at that time that he did not really understand what sustainability was but recognised that it was ‘going to become important’. At that time we had the assistance of the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) for energy related matters and it is a much missed resource. Successive organisations – including the current Carbon Trust – have, in comparison, promised much but delivered very little.

Environmental management was in its infancy – the standard was BS 7750 at that time. Climate Change Levy and Emissions Trading were still just a gleam in the politician’s eye and we were still happy to measure energy efficiency in ‘therms’ per thousand bricks rather than kilogrammes of CO2/t of saleable product. Interestingly, the British Ceramic Confederation quarterly report at the time included the following comment – ‘A new European Commission proposal for a carbon dioxide tax has been made by the Spanish presidency, this could cause significant market distortion.’

At the macro level, it would still be a further four years before Ibstock Brick was acquired by the Dublin-based CRH Group, making it the first non-UK-owned brick manufacturer. Therefore, at that time, 100% of the production was operated by UK-owned companies – many of them small and family owned. Now, following significant consolidation over the past 16 years, over 85% of UK clay brick manufacturing capacity is owned by global building materials producers with headquarters outside the UK.

Crystal ball

So which of the predictions have proved correct? Certainly, there has been growth in the importance of certified environmental management systems to demonstrate that a company is operating ethically and responsibly. From the single certified site in 1995 (Denton works in Manchester), it is now the case that the majority of brick factories in the UK are certified to EN 14001. We are also moving forward with BES 6001, and I would suggest that the occupational health and safety management standard, OHSAS 18001, will assume greater importance over the next 15 years.

Lifecycle assessment – for both our own products and competing products – has also become of absolute importance, even though the methodology is still being finessed within the CEN Technical Committee TC 350. The following extract from the 1995 article in Clay Technology is still relevant: ‘such lifecycle analysis studies can be subjective and depend heavily on the weighting given to the different aspects of the lifecycle. Clearly if our products are ‘scored’ primarily on use of non-renewable extracted minerals and on the energy consumption during manufacture, then they will not look too clever. What we must emphasise for our products is their durability, long life, lack of requirement for maintenance and the fact that they can be recycled at the end of their service life.’

Also correct was the view that energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources would become increasingly important, and that the addition of wastes or additives to substitute for virgin clay would become even more desirable. Although hampered by regulatory interventions related to waste management, the use of materials from alternative recycled and secondary sources (MARSS) continues to grow, as evidenced by the annual Ceram survey.

There was also a prediction that political intervention in the form of increased regulatory control over all aspects of our manufacturing operations would become an increasing challenge, and that consistency in implementation – or lack of it – across all the European member states would be a matter of growing importance. I noted at the time, that ‘a European edict which we in the UK take as an absolute limit never to be breached is often taken in other Member States as a guideline to be aimed for whenever possible.’

In 1995, we were still addressing the issues of hydrogen fluoride abatement under the Environmental Protection Act. The intervening years have brought a plethora of regulation, mainly in the areas of energy and carbon taxation. It appears that the UK regulators have a desire to goldplate any forthcoming European legislation. In addition to the current uncertainties with regard to carbon taxation, I would cite, as an example, the enormous amount of work that the CBI Minerals Committee and the BCC had to undertake to curb the zeal of the Environment Agency for overly prescriptive implementation of the Mining Waste Directive in the UK. At the Cerame Unie (The European Ceramic Industry Association) level, this particular piece of European legislation was not even on the agenda.

Wishful thinking

Which of the predictions have not proved to be accurate? I suppose the greatest disappointment must be microwaveassisted firing, which was the hot topic of 1995 and genuinely anticipated to be the next quantum step in improved energy efficiency in heavy clay manufacture. Significant experimental work was carried out on this project but the early laboratory success proved not to be replicable at full scale. Unfortunately, we are still suffering the fallout from this exercise, as many Government statistics factor in the energy efficiency improvements anticipated from this technology, which have never materialised.

It is also worth noting that there has not been any great development in fast firing techniques for heavy clay products, with most products still fired in traditional tunnel kilns. Possibly the reasons for this are that the necessary research projects into fast firing have not come to pass. The overall investment in R&D has been pretty pitiful over the entire 16-year period, and shows no great sign of improvement. Little money has been available for reinvestment in kilns and firing equipment over the period. The number of major kiln projects during this period can probably be counted on one hand.

Although there has been considerable growth in the uptake of automated brick packing techniques (to reduce the health and safety aspects of manual handling), another area that has not progressed as expected is the development of automated online systems for measuring product properties, such as dimensions and fired colour. This remains an area for future development.

It is also probable that the introduction of the new (in 1995) European brick standard, BS EN 771-1 has not caused as many problems as anticipated. Customers seem to have become accustomed to the generally lower specifications given by this standard in comparison to the former BS 3921 – but could this have been accompanied by a view that the clay brick is a product ripe for substitution with alternative products, possibly products that have made a better job of demonstrating their sustainability credentials?

Overall, the major differences between 2011 and 1995 are that the profitability of the sector is even lower, and that the non-UK ownership of the majority of production capacity means major investment decisions are now being taken at arms length from the UK. These decisions are also being taken against a background where the UK regulatory authorities seem hell bent on implementing all EU legislation in a more manufacturing-industry unfriendly way than in other European member states.

This far-from-level playing field within Europe is further compounded by the increasing threat of imports from further afield. The ‘carbon leakage’ threat, where CO2 emissions are exported outside Europe to countries with less rigorous energy and carbon tax regimes, together with loss of the associated manufacturing jobs, seems to be something of a blind spot for the Coalition Government – as it was for the previous government. Perhaps these are the people who still believe that all Wedgwood’s products are still manufactured in Stoke on Trent? There are those in Whitehall who would rather see UK industrial CO2 emissions reduced rather than protecting and stimulating jobs in the UK manufacturing industry.

Promising future

I think it is appropriate to repeat the final paragraph from 1995, ‘The major improvement objective is the development of understanding of lifecycle analysis for our own product and its application in an increasingly environmentally-conscious market place. This is the real challenge facing our industry and its various trade and marketing organisations as we start the countdown to 2005.’ Just change the 2005 to 2016 and introduce the even greater priorities now defined by our customers’ needs to comply with the Code for Sustainable Homes and various related Government initiatives. So, returning to 2011, what are the major issues facing the UK clay brick manufacturing sector? Firstly, we must lobby vigorously for a political climate that is supportive to investment in manufacturing industry and operates a regulatory regime that is fair and consistent. Secondly, the industry must work together even more to promote the positive sustainability credentials of its products in comparison to alternative building materials.

Further information

Wienerberger Ltd, Wienerberger House, Brooks Drive, Cheadle Royal Business Park, Cheadle, Cheshire, SK8 3SA. Tel: 0161 491 8200. Email: Website:

Author details

John Sandford is Director of Technical Services for Wienerberger Ltd, Cheadle, UK, covering the 18 Wienerberger and Sandtoft Roof Tile sites in the UK, and also Chairman of the Brick Development Association Manufacturing Steering Group. He has worked in the clay building product manufacturing sector since 1972, having previously worked for Hepworth Building Products, Salvesen Brick, Chelwood Brick and Baggeridge Brick PLC, in addition to consultancy work for the British Ceramic Confederation and CICS Ltd on aspects of Environmental Regulation and Carbon Taxation. Views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Wienerberger Ltd.