Roundtable: Past, present and future
As the year draws to a close, Melanie Rutherford asks key ﬁgures in the UK brick industry about progress in 2013, and the challenges the sector faces over the coming year.
The Panel -
Adrian Meacham (AM)
Managing Director Hans Lingl (UK) Ltd
Guy Armitage (GA)
Operations Director, York Handmade Brick
Paula Wardle (PW)
TPM and Training Manager, Ibstock Brick
George Stewart (GS)
Operations Director, Bricks and Aircrete Blocks, Hanson Building Products (UK)
David Rockliff (DR)
Programme Leader – Product Technology, University of Derby
Peter Sharp (PS)
Group Operations Director, Michelmersh Brick Holdings Plc
How does the UK brick industry look today compared to this time last year, and what do you see as the main challenges for 2014?
AM - Brick sales are now pretty good, which is a great sign. But we’ve got some manufacturers quoting 20-week waiting lists while there are bricks just sitting there in yards in the Netherlands that are ready to come into the country. The British brick industry has got to ﬁnd a way to improve supply, because a 20-week delivery is not sustainable. It’s not easy to go from being in deep recession and running plants on a skeleton crew to wanting to ﬁ re up on full production. The people aren’t there, and they’re not suddenly going to drop everything and come running back to the industry. I think the biggest challenge at the moment is the skillset. Having gone through two or three years of recession, people were lost to other industries and there was very little investment in apprenticeships. Also, there’s a lot of knowledge on ceramics that resides with the older generation and I’m not totally convinced that it is passed down in the right way, so a lack of ceramics knowledge is a future problem we may face. And of course, cranking up the old mothballed plants isn’t really going to help the emissions targets, so that could be a challenge as well.
DR - I think we’re slowly but surely getting the message across that the industry deserves to have its educational needs supported. The challenge is to keep building on that and to keep encouraging the young, inquisitive people who want to come into the industry. They need to feel that they are good managers and are properly educated.
GA - It has been great to see some factories reopening, the number of housebuilds increasing and the number of bricks being sold going up. It bodes very well for the future of our industry.
PW - Earlier this year it was like a tap turning on, from being in the depths of a recession to customers chasing us for products. The main challenge for the industry is going to be being able to deliver the products the customer wants, when they want them.
GS - The challenge for the industry is innovation – bricks have been made the same way for probably 1,000 years or more. Innovation in the industry at the moment seems to be turning up with a competitor’s brick and asking, ‘can you make one that colour?’ What we need to be trying to understand is, what is the next step-change that we need to make in bricks? What that is, I’m not sure. There are more energy-efficient plants being brought on line over the last few years, which will make bricks more energy efficient. Is that really innovation? Process innovation, yes, but product innovation, no. What product innovation looks like I’m not sure either, but there are brick alternatives out there now, so as an industry we need to be trying to understand how we can compete with those.
If you had ﬁve minutes with the Prime Minister, what would you say the UK Government should be doing to help the brick industry?
AM - Focus on the training and the apprenticeships. I believe bricklaying itself has a skills shortage, and I think people aren’t getting attracted to those careers. Going forward, energy price is a big factor for the industry, and also the regulation of emissions, because that could cause almost impossible problems for manufacturers. If the laws are too stringent, the level of investment needed couldn’t be recouped in the price of the brick.
DR - Stop messing around with the training system and changing the rules every two years. We’ve done a lot of work setting up the higher apprenticeship programme, then the rules changed and they’re talking about changing the name and the funding. Set your stool out as to what the rules are and let us get on with it for ﬁve or six years, because the education business can’t be dealing with changes as often as we’ve had them.
GA - Build more houses, to stimulate jobs and employment in our industry. Keep energy costs down, to make sure that we can not only produce bricks in the future, but also keeps the lights on. I hope future politicians will plan energy policy better than the past ones have.
PW - From a training point of view, really understand what skills the industry needs and the problems some of the current mainstream training provision brings. We have small numbers of people to be trained in skills vital to our industry, so we are looking for high-quality training delivered as we want it, when we want it, to ensure the skills of our workforce are maintained for the future.
GS - The thing that most people would talk about is energy costs. When you make a brick, 30% of cost is tied up in energy. We need some control over the cost of energy but, more importantly, we need to ensure we have continuity of supply. The most dangerous thing for us is having supplies cut at short notice, and we went through that earlier this year – but a kiln is such that you can’t just switch the gas off. We need to have that continuity of supply just as much as we need a competitive market.
PS - We need certainty on supply of both gas and electricity, as well as some stability and consistency in approach. Gas security, more gas storage, and making planning applications easier. For example, if you wanted to put a wind turbine up next to a factory, the amount of work that would have to be done to get that through planning…it takes a long time. Is it worth it?
What do you think is the general public perception of the UK brick industry, and how does this compare to reality?
AM - I’m not sure the public has that much of a perception of the construction industry, or that the average person is really aware of the energy side of brick manufacturing. But I think one strength of the UK brick industry is that British people like bricks. From an energy point of view the European block wins hands down, but I think we’re quite lucky that British people like real brick on their houses – I’m hoping that this saves us.
DR - I think the general public is more concerned about mud on the road than carbon footprint. Being a good neighbour is more important than global issues, however important those issues are. That also means being a good local employer, because brickworks tend to be in places where there’s a strong employer in a pocket of population.
PS - Maybe there is a perception that it’s a dirty industry, certainly when trying to attract young people to work in the sector. But it’s really not like that, not now, anyway. The factories are clean and tidy, and health and safety is looked after. There are a lot of high-tech jobs in the brick industry – all the kilns are computer-controlled and there are lots of technical engineering jobs required. But it is sometimes difficult to attract people, and I think some of that comes from parents, to be honest. Kids only really know what their parents and the teachers at school tell them. The industry has gone through a tough time over the last few years, and people see that, as well.
Do you think enough is being done to promote the values of traditional construction in the UK? With whom does this responsibility lie?
AM - No, I don’t think there is, to be honest. Responsibility lies with the industry itself and the emphasis is on the brick manufacturers. It’s up to us to push the beneﬁts of our products. I think the Brick Development Association does a good job of pointing out the beneﬁts of brick and its longevity.
DR - It’s a tricky one. People look at the local builder and think, ‘That’s construction,’ and don’t actually realise what goes on in highway maintenance and major construction works – like the Olympics, this industry was a part of that. Perhaps we just need to remind people that construction in general is important. The other day, someone asked me about the value of blacktop. There are 20 million tonnes of that stuff laid every year – that’s a retail value of about £1bln, and the industry that goes to support it turns over about £5bln, yet people think it’s about the bloke who comes to do their driveway. I’m sure it’s the same with bricks. They see a pallet of bricks, they don’t see the big, wide industry. The sector has been banging that drum, but there’s a lot more of the drum to be banged. It would make people realise that an industry of this size needs proper managers, which is why we now need 18–25 year-olds to bring through the business.
PW - Both Government and the industry are responsible. We as an industry could do more to promote ourselves as a 21st Century employer, through schools and the media. At the same time, the Government could recognise our sector as being as important to the UK as the automotive and aerospace industries.
How do you hope the industry will look in 12 months’ time – any predictions for 2014?
AM - We’ve got a situation now where some mothballed plants have been restarted or are being considered for restarting, so I think it might be more about upgrades and modiﬁcations next year rather than new facilities. I don’t think we’ll ever fully go back to the previous output levels, but I think we’ll deﬁnitely have an improvement on last year. The current instant demand is causing a bit of panic buying, so we will need that to settle down and have a more of a steady growth of output. There’s also the chance that imports will start to ﬁll up more and more of the shortfall, which in the long term could cause UK brick manufacturers problems.
GA - I would like to see an industry that’s producing a diverse range of clay products that offers customers a real choice of materials to build from, so that customers have a real choice of high-value products, whatever their requirements are.
PW - Let me consult my crystal ball... I would like to see a buoyant market and the UK industry fulﬁlling the needs of that market. I would like to see a full range of nationally available, high-quality training programmes in all skill areas that match the industry’s training needs.
GS - In 12 months’ time I would hope that the industry is in a stronger position than it is today in terms of supply, so we have the right capacity in place to supply the growing market. It’s going to take some time to bring that supply line back onstream, but I think all of us are working on doing that as quickly as we can. From a British brick perspective, the last thing we want to do is to miss the boat on the supply needs for the major house builders, and them then having exports brought in from other countries. We need to make sure we’re in a position to supply that market going forward into 2015 and beyond.