The breakdown

Clay Technology magazine
15 Feb 2018

At ClayTech UK 2017, speakers looked at the challenges and opportunities ahead for the clay and brick industries. Ines Nastali attended the event and learnt, with Brexit bringing change, UK-wide initiatives are needed and being welcomed.

Brexit will force a change in the business models for construction, announced Noble Francis, Economics Director of the Construction Products Association, when he spoke at the ClayTech UK 2017 conference in Newark, UK, in November 2017. He warned that two years wasn’t enough time to negotiate agreements for these business models. His keynote set the scene for the day as subsequent presenters also referenced the UK’s upcoming exit from the EU as expected cause for change in their respective sectors. 

Nevertheless, looking at the recently announced plans by the UK Government to grow the country’s house building market, he reminded attendees that there will be national business opportunities as well. In January, the Housing Secretary Sajid Javid launched Homes England, a new national housing agency, which ‘will be helping to deliver an average of 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s,’ the secretary said. 

This will be done by securing land in areas where people ‘want to live’, supporting smaller and more innovative builders who want to enter the market and by developing brownfield sites across the country to deliver homes for all – something that is easier said than done. 

The challenges 

Tom Reynolds, Policy Manager of the British Ceramic Confederation at ClayTech, seconded this positive outlook. ‘I think the need for a huge uplift in house-building in the UK is well recognised. 

It might be interesting, also for ClayTech 2018, to look at the scale of the challenge, and what our industry can do to help accelerate the rate that homes are constructed,’ he said. For the time being, he assured attendees that the ceramics industry is doing well, adding that ‘our designs sell like hot cakes’. 

He not only debated political challenges like Brexit, but also looked at the challenges presented within the ceramics industry, such as recruitment. ‘The average age in our sector is 47,’ he said. Reynolds welcomed the government’s initiative to help ceramics succeed. ‘One of the biggest opportunities is the industrial strategy. The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, has shown a lot of enthusiasm for finalising a sector deal for ceramics early in 2018,’ he tells Clay Technology, adding that ‘proposals include sector specific trade advice and flexibility around apprenticeships, but also assistance with strategic issues like innovation including exciting new ceramics research facilities in Stoke-on-Trent’.

Furthermore, he says, economic uncertainty as a result of several factors, not least Brexit, is a major challenge. ‘When we polled our members before the referendum, nearly three-quarters were in favour of remaining in the EU,’ he said. ‘After the result, we focused on making Brexit work for us. The current regulatory and economic uncertainty is extremely unhelpful. One positive is that the UK could now take a different approach on reducing industrial carbon emissions, offering industry more carrot and less stick than in EU emissions trading systems.’

‘We don’t yet know if government will do this.’

In this context, he warned that, while the EU carbon trading scheme has been difficult to implement, if there is no Brexit deal, this could be a threat to reducing the building sector’s emissions. In addition, he voiced concerns about supply and prices for gas, which is needed to produce bricks. ‘We are dependant on imports in a time where Qatar, as the biggest liquefied natural gas supplier, is trapped among a volatile market,’ he said.

Reynolds and members of the ceramics confederation respond by ‘lots of lobbying, asking for effective UK trade remedies to combat dumped – illegally priced – imports’. He adds, ‘This is already a huge concern for our whitewares members, and could be for heavy clay manufacturers. But on the whole, we shouldn’t be downbeat as our sector is very well placed to succeed.’

A missing initiative to reduce emissions was also something that Massimo Bernini, CEO of Italian firing systems manufacturer Bernini Impianti, spoke about in his presentation. ‘It is important to use energy efficiently, especially as firing clay uses a lot of it. But most of the heavy clay companies in industrial countries don’t use alternative fuels, most use natural gas, and coal in developing countries,’ he said. 

To reduce the carbon footprint of the company, Bernini uses locally sourced biogas plants to power his kilns. He argues, ‘Alternative fuels such as biogas, biomass and its derivative fuels, on the other hand, have the potential to shield brick manufacturers from the fluctuating price of the natural gas in the market.’

Timber on the rise 

Less enthusiastic about his sector’s future outlook was Steve Morgan, Sales Director of Thorpe Precast. He voiced concerns about the rising timber share in newbuilt houses, especially in Scotland, which hurts the masonry sector, he claimed.

In addition to the brick industry missing out on trade, he is concerned as around 80% of timber used in construction in the UK has been imported, according to the Royal Forestry Society. To put this in context, the Forestry Society argues that there are around 60–100 million tonnes of what they call overdue timber in UK broadleaved woodlands. ‘Although it may not be desirable or technically or economically feasible to harvest all of this timber, there is scope to significantly increase production in England,’ it is stated in a 2016 evidence report for the UK Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs sub committee.

The Forestry Society added, ‘increased production would help address the current trade deficit in wood products. The UK currently is the third biggest timber importer in the world behind Japan and China’.  

In addition, Morgan fears that the masonry sector has therefore been destroyed in this part of the UK and claims that the UK government is additionally out to harm the manufacturing sector. ‘Brexit gives us the opportunity to do something about this,’ he told ClayTech attendees.

More challenges 

Jonathan Savage, Technical Sales Manager at Borregaard, looked at the opportunities and challenges for additives in the brick industry under the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH) agreement, which ensures safe handling of chemicals that are being used for brick making –something that will have to change after Brexit. 

He told Clay Technology, ‘One of the main challenges is the fact that it is European law. When we do finally break away from the EU, then it’s about the cost involved to the UK Government in terms of how they are going to reintroduce REACH into UK legislation. That could be a huge challenge.’

Since then, Theresa May announced in January 2018 that ‘because we recognise their value, we will incorporate all existing EU environmental regulations into domestic law when we leave’.

For the time being, additives need to adhere to the REACH agreement, so Savage went on to look at how it works, examined terminologies and definitions within REACH and some of the costs involved, ‘as well as a section on the new safety data sheets, which is probably one of the most important things under REACH for the end user who is purchasing the chemicals’, he said.

Up for it 

Keith Aldis, CEO of the Brick Development Association, thinks that the industry is up for the challenges ahead. 

‘I showed the ClayTech audience a clipping from the local newspaper whose headline reported that brick is back. I also wanted to remind people of the manufacturing processes, which remain tactile and creative and that while brick remains a traditional material, it is adaptable enough to take on the demands of modern production and economics.’ 

He added that ‘not only does brick maintain its prominence in established masonry building techniques, but it offers the certainty and security often lacking in fledgling technologies. This means that there is also a natural role for clay brick to play in modern methods of construction’. 

Demand continues to be met by brick manufacturers and with planned growth, the industry looks secure, he said, adding that ‘off-site is not the panacea, but government thinks it is’.

Looking forward

Looking at the year ahead, Aldis would like to see debate about ‘the use of heavy clay across other sectors of industry. Heavy clay’s role to nations’ economies means that there is potential for a broader topic, which encapsulates the significant financial and environmental impact of this mainstay of British industry.’ 

Meanwhile, Savage is aware that the sector needs to modernise. ‘Some companies are still using methods from the 50s, 60s and 70s, so maybe there are ways to roll out new technologies and industrial ideas that can be beneficial at a low cost.

Medals and CPD certificates were awarded to members of the International Clay Technology Association by the Institute.