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Why British Bricks Are Still As Scarce As Hen’s Teeth!

Why British Bricks Are Still As Scarce As Hen’s Teeth!

The UK housing market is improving but house builders are suffering due to a shortfall in the country’s brick reserve.

After a very difficult five years, the UK housing market has roared back to life, buoyed by government initiatives such as the “Help to Buy” scheme. House builders have seen their share prices rise dramatically in recent months, and the outlook for their businesses should be getting better by the day. Yet many are now being hindered by a seemingly farcical problem a shortage of bricks.

The traditional kiln-fired clay bricks used to construct most British houses are in very short supply, with waiting times of up to four months in some parts of the country. Some large firms have found the backlog so severe that they have resorted to importing supplies from manuf­ac­turers in Europe – a less-than-ideal solution that increases costs and leads to delays of its own.

Today’s brick shortage is a direct consequence of the prolonged downturn in house prices that followed the global financial crisis of 2007/08. As house building in the UK collapsed to levels not seen since the 1920s, brick makers were left with an enormous stockpile of 1.2 billion unsold bricks – around half a normal year’s demand. Companies responded by closing factories and laying off staff. For example, Hanson, one of the UK’s largest brick makers, shut five plants and reduced its workforce by half. UK brick production fell from almost three billion per year in the first half of the 2000s to around half that in 2012.

When the housing market turned, the country’s stockpile of bricks was big enough to meet demand. Now, however, that reserve has been exhausted.

Why the brick shortage can’t be solved any time soon

Brick makers have started to respond to the shortages. However, boosting production is not simply a matter of turning the factory lights back on: restarting a mothballed plant takes time.

What’s more, the present economic environment is a challenging one in which to rebuild such a workforce. Many employees in the UK’s construction industry at the peak of the last boom had come here from Eastern Europe in search of work. After the crash, many returned home, while others who remained have moved into other sectors.

As a result, it will be many months before output can rise to meet even today’s depressed levels of demand. If Help to Buy and other proposals spark the significant increase in construction that the government hopes, it is hard to see how the now-shrunken industry can keep up. Last year, private house builders completed 88,000 homes, compared with the 250,000 per year that the government believes the industry should be targeting to meet long-term demand. 

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