The UK construction market is in a funny situation right now. As the economy has started to grow in 2021, shortages of building materials have been reported following the relaxation of coronavirus-related restrictions. In April 2021, for example, the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) added cement, aggregates and certain plastics to its existing lists of products in short supply. These commodities joined a slew of other materials, including timber, steel, roof tiles, bricks and imported products such as screws, fixings, plumbing items, sanitaryware, shower enclosures, electrical products and appliances. The CLC advised all users to, “plan for increased demand and longer delays, keep open lines of communication with their suppliers and order early for future projects.”
Skip forward a month to May 2021 and these shortages are on more people’s minds with the announcement by the Office for National Statistics that UK monthly construction output grew by 5.8% month-on-month to around Euro16.5bn in March 2021 due to both new work and to repair and maintenance projects. Quarter-on-quarter output also rose by 2.6%, adding to the impression of a building sector emerging from the fog of lockdown. In the face of this good news Nigel Jackson, the chief executive of the UK mineral Products Association (MPA), was asked about reported shortages of cement. He told local press this week that “it would not be surprising if there were short-term issues of supply as the economy gathers momentum.” He added that the biggest issues had been observed in levels of bagged cement typically used in domestic projects.
The MPA followed this up with the results of a survey of building materials manufacturers that reported a slow but steady start to 2021 with mounting construction demand month-on-month. Sales volumes of aggregates and concrete were both up quarter-on-quarter but volumes of asphalt and mortar fell. Unfortunately that survey didn’t cover cement volumes but it did have more to say about concrete. In its view ready-mixed concrete sales had been subdued since 2017 due to the UK’s departure from the European Union (Brexit) and a general slowdown in residential building. The market recovery seen so far in 2021 was likely to be merely a return to growth from a subdued level of activity that pre-dates Covid-19.
At the time of writing the UK government faces a decision about whether to continue opening up the economy or exercise caution in the face of the as-yet unknown consequences of the Indian variant of coronavirus. This may delay talk of building materials shortages but it can’t avoid it forever. In the UK, cement shortages appear to be due to the self-build segment and will hopefully soon be resolved.
A shortage of cement in the UK may not mean much to people outside the country, with the exception of exporters. Yet the wider picture here is that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the production of building materials, changed end-user behaviour and distorted markets around the world. Other examples include the row over the price of cement in Nigeria, the boom in cement sales in Brazil in the second half of 2020 or reported shortages in Jamaica this week. A significant number of people, when forced to spend more time at home, appeared to save money and then decided to either move to a different house or make their current one better. Yet at the same time differing government restrictions and market fluctuations have seen building material output levels vary widely. Other reasons are at play both local and international. Brexit in the UK is one example of the former, as importers and exporters have been forced to grapple with new rules and costs. The temporary blockage of the Suez Canal in March 2021 is one example of the latter. No wonder supply chains are struggling. That last point goes wider than building materials though, for example, as anyone trying to buy semiconductors has discovered. One fear behind all of this though is whether these are temporary shortages or whether inflation is on the way for the global economy generally. In this is the case, then it signals the end of the low consumer inflation rate era since the financial crash in 2008 and may herald changes in behaviour from both producers and consumers.