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New decade, new Government, new opportunities

by John Newcomb, CEO, BMF
22 January 2020

John NewcombMany of us will be glad to see the back of 2019, which will largely be remembered for political strife and economic stagnation while Brexit deadlines came and passed. Whatever your views on the subject, we are now assured of a resolution in 2020. But the new Government must also look beyond Brexit to domestic policy. 

The BMF awaits the February cabinet reshuffle to see who will take responsibility for Housing and Climate Change. We will urge them to focus on two major issues. Narrowing the gap between housing demand and supply, and the decarbonisation of heating and electrification of homes with sustainable means.   

On new housing, concerted action is required to simplify and speed up planning approvals for uncontroversial applications thus increasing housing completions. We will also seek early clarification on the future of the Help to Buy scheme. 

BMF members have a key role to play with regard to decarbonising homes, as they make and deliver the majority of products used to provide low carbon solutions. We strongly support the “Fabric First” concept, with a coherent, long-term framework that combines better insulation, efficient boilers and low-carbon, microgeneration on the road to net zero carbon emissions. The Government must create an environment that enables our industry to invest confidently in the people, materials and new products required both for new build and existing homes. 

Reducing VAT from 20% to 5% on home improvement works is central to this aim and the BMF, along with others in construction, has already written to Mr Johnson to outline the economic, environmental and social benefits from improving existing properties with a lower VAT rate. 

Building Excellence


The BMF’s priority for 2020 continues to be helping our members to build excellence within their business. Two initiatives starting this month are central to this aim. The first links to customer service, the second to digitalisation – and in an increasingly on-line world, both are closely aligned.  

Trustpilot, the leading global review platform, joined the BMF as a service member this month and we have negotiated a 10% discount for BMF members signing up for their service. Trustpilot give companies the tools to track and analyse customer satisfaction, build greater trust and to showcase and grow their business.  In particular, merchants can gain insight about their customers’ experience and identify trends and patterns in feedback.  Should they identify a particular issue, the BMF is always able to provide assistance with training solutions. 

More and more trade customers have grown up with the internet and there is a growing demand to order building products and manage trade accounts online, making the digitalisation of business a necessity rather than an option. 

A recent straw-poll of our merchant members found a growing number already doing business online and 65% planning to launch or increase sales from online platforms during the next two years. One of the difficulties they currently encounter is obtaining product data from their suppliers in an easily usable format, which is why the BMF will work with the building materials and HVAC communities to implement the ETIM open source data model.  

ETIM not only ensures that all users of the product data employ the same terms to describe the same attributes and values, it streamlines the transfer of information, removes inefficiency in the supply chain and facilitates the transition to online trading.   

I am delighted that NMBS and NBG have already announced their support for the model, which will help independent merchants address the challenge of digitisation, bringing new opportunities as we move into a new decade.  


This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of Builders' Merchants News (BMN)


To find out more about ETIM click here
To find out more about Trustpilot click here
2019 will largely be remembered for political strife and economic stagnation while Brexit deadlines came and passed. Whatever your views on the subject, we are now assured of a resolution in 2020. But the new Government must also look beyond Brexit

What are the benefits of third-party certification of timber fire doors?

Helen Hewitt, Chief Executive of the British Woodworking Federation (BWF)
14 January 2020

Helen Hewitt, BWF CEOA fire door is a vital safety measure engineered to protect lives and property. Fire doors are part of a building’s passive fire protection system and an essential requirement for all public buildings, offices, and factories. But how can builders’ merchants ensure that the fire door they recommend to customers will perform as it’s designed? 

Following the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) conducted an investigation into the burn time of different types of fire doors. Findings showed the timber fire doors tested met required standards and all of them exceeded the minimum 30-minute burn time requirement. This contrasts with the performance of the glass-reinforced polymer foam-filled fire doors – the type recovered from Grenfell Tower, of which many failed the MHCLG tests.

These findings underline the importance of ensuring that fire doors are fit for purpose. At the BWF Fire Door Alliance, we believe the only way to be assured of the performance of fire doors, regardless of the material they are made from, is through rigorous testing and third-party certification of fire door assemblies, including its component parts, such as the frame, intumescent seals, glazing systems and ironmongery etc.

What is third-party certification for fire doors?

Third-party certification is a process of testing and verifying a fire door’s design, performance, manufacturing process and quality assurance of procedures and supporting documentation. A company that seeks third-party certification is independently audited to ensure that the management and manufacturing processes, and supporting systems, are in place to ensure consistency with the product that was initially tested. The product is also subjected to regular scrutiny, with periodic testing taking place on standard products to ensure that the test wasn’t just a once-only event.

Benefits of third-party certification

The third-party certification process offers reassurance to merchants and their customers, giving them confidence in a fire door’s performance.

For example, third-party certified fire doors manufactured by companies in the BWF Fire Door Alliance will have a label on them that carries a unique identification number. This provides access to all information related to the door such as its manufacturer, and specification information. This label provides the ability to trace the doors manufacturing history through production records, which is particularly beneficial for customers as it allows - in the majority of cases - the original fire certificate and specification to be located. For ongoing maintenance this is crucial for identifying replacement components to ensure ongoing compliance. 

Being able to view this information means that builders’ merchants can offer recommendations to their customers on the correct component parts for fire door assemblies helping their customers ensure compliance under the Building Regulations or the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO).

To be confident in the performance of a fire door, it’s crucial that builders’ merchants recommend third-party certified fire doors to their customers to ensure the product will perform as required in the event of a fire.

For more information visit: https://firedoors.bwf.org.uk
A fire door is a vital safety measure engineered to protect lives and property. Fire doors are part of a building’s passive fire protection system and an essential requirement for all public buildings, offices, and factories. But how can builders’ me

Workplace transport – let’s get back to basics

By Paul Barker, Health and Safety Consultant at Southalls
7 January 2020
Workplace transport
Pedestrian collisions. Forklift truck accidents. Objects falling during loading and unloading. Transport incidents cause a significant number of workplace injuries and deaths every year, shattering lives and livelihoods across every sector. The common thread? Most are entirely preventable with a common sense approach to compliance.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all safety solution, a few fundamental fixes could considerably reduce risk across your business. 

Map out traffic flow

Every site has a unique layout and it’s every employer’s responsibility to identify their own transport patterns, space constraints and safety requirements. Begin with a simple observation exercise, assessing the movement of vehicles, forklift trucks, cars and pedestrians throughout your workplace. Then carry out a more formal risk assessment covering traffic routes and their inherent hazards, such as junctions, gradients and potential collision points.

Separate vehicles and pedestrians


As far as is practicable, keep moving vehicles and forklift trucks away from workers and site visitors. Isolate pedestrian walkways with physical boundaries, such as protective barriers or rails, and safeguard vehicle routes with appropriate signage, speed limits and designated loading/unloading areas.

Banish stock blind spots

As well as presenting a crushing hazard, overloaded racking systems can create perilous blind spots. Stock should never impede views or traffic flow, consider installing ceiling or wall mounted safety mirrors to improve visibility.

Go above and beyond 

Even with solid transport safety measures in place, it’s vital to recognise when temporary supporting measures such as barriers and cones are needed. Staging a public event -  like a breakfast? Planning construction work? A supplementary risk assessment will help pinpoint additional requirements during this time

Stack safely 

According to the British Safety Council, around 1,300 UK employees are seriously injured each year as a result of forklift accidents. Stacking is a recurrent risk area, so ensure workers are properly trained on correct methods of pallet placement and removal.

Block offloading areas

Where possible, establish segregated loading and unloading areas that allow drivers to easily manoeuvre. Nearly a quarter of all transport-related workplace deaths happen while vehicles are reversing, so eliminate the need by implementing one-way systems. Light the way  In a bustling work environment, staff can tune out traditional sound-based warning systems like back-up beepers. Blue spot technology – which projects a bright blue LED light in the path of a moving forklift – alerts pedestrians and other vehicles to approaching traffic. 

Create safe zones for drivers

Structure your site to ensure hazard-free delivery and collection of goods. Purpose-built safe areas keep drivers and other workers protected during loading and unloading. Similarly, clear signage, speed limits and one-way systems keep traffic flowing in predictable patterns.

Insist on safety 

Some safety measures are simply non-negotiable. Seatbelts should be standard, along with correct training for varying vehicle types. Workers should never drive under the influence of alcohol, drugs or prescription medication that may cause drowsiness, and mobile phones are always safest stowed whilst driving or present in the yard.



BUILDERS MERCHANTS SAFETY THAT KEEPS YOU A STEP AHEAD.This article was written by Southalls, BMF Safety Plus Services provider. Southalls consultants push your approach beyond simple box-ticking, helping you transform standards and create a compliance-based culture. We start with a bespoke, business-wide safety audit based on your specific needs, as well as common issues of safety in builders merchants, then provide the hands-on expertise to ensure you meet legal requirements, and much more. Get in touch to request your complimentary visit and preview the power of best health and safety practice.

Pedestrian collisions. Forklift truck accidents. Objects falling during loading and unloading. Transport incidents cause a significant number of workplace injuries and deaths every year. The common thread? Most are entirely preventable with a common

Tailored to perfection

By Richard Ellithorne, BMF Membership Services Manager
23 December 2019

Richard EllithorneMore and more merchants are recognising the advantages of bespoke in-housetraining – particularly if they have a number of employees with similar training needs. 

While the BMF offers a wide variety of “off the peg” courses, they also work with members who have a particular training need to help them navigate the bespoke route.  Having discussed what they are trying to achieve, the BMF will identify an appropriate specialist trainer who then works directly with the merchant to create an exclusive course for their staff.

One company who found great value in this approach is Crossling Plumbing and Pipeline Merchants.  Operating from 14 branches, Crossling is the north of England’s largest independent plumbing and pipeline specialists.  Founded 150 years ago and still privately-owned, staff development is an important driver to support their growing business.

Earlier this year Crossling identified a management and leadership training need for two of their managers and quickly recognised that this would be an opportunity to include a wider cohort of recently or soon to be promoted team members within the same programme. They just had to find a suitable course for 10 delegates ranging from supervisors to branch managers.

Having successfully used the BMF’s Selling Skills training courses previously, the BMF were once again Crossling’s first port of call.  Their initial discussions with the BMF highlighted that the people attending the course would not relate to a “death by Powerpoint” training approach.  They needed to be actively engaged in the programme, and the BMF knew that Sue Reed would be the ideal person for the job.

With the trainer identified and connection made, Andrew Bell, Crossling’s Distribution Manager was able to discuss the company’s desired outcomes directly with Sue Reed and select the most applicable elements from a range of options presented.  The trainer was also briefed on the company’s culture, with background briefings on each of the delegates and why they would find the course helpful at this stage of their development. 

Andrew explained: “Working directly with Sue enabled Crosslings to create an exclusive three-day management and leadership programme, which not only provided the best fit for the business but was also pitched at a level that suited all delegates – no mean feat as the group was diverse in terms of job roles and leadership experience.”

Andrew admits that going down the bespoke route required a fair degree of input from the business, but he is committed to helping others develop, just as he was supported at an earlier stage in his career.  In the event he found working with the trainer to design an exclusive Crossling programme and create content that was applicable to all possible delegates highly satisfying.

Although the programme was a significant investment for the business, the company are not viewing it as a one-off, but something that can be run again and again.

“The feedback has been extremely positive,” said Andrew.  The interactive presentation style proved particularly popular and I can see delegates using the techniques and problem-solving methods they were taught. We will definitely repeat the course for others and will only tweak it if we need to better fit the roles of the next cohort of delegates.” For more information on any aspect of BMF training contact paige.godsell@bmf.org.uk or on 02456 854980, or visit www.bmf.org.uk/training



This article first appeared in the December 2019 edition of Professional Builders Merchant (PBM)

BMF training ranges from formal Apprenticeships and sector-specific Diplomas and a Foundation Degree in Merchant Management, to on-line product knowledge and other specialist skills training. For more information about BMF Training click here

More and more merchants are recognising the advantages of bespoke in-house training – particularly if they have a number of employees with similar training needs.

De-carbonising home heating: what’s next ?

by Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager
17 December 2019


Brett AmphlettIn February 2019, the Committee on Climate Change published a report that concluded the UK cannot meets its climate obligations without major improvements in housing. The “UK Housing: Fit for the Future” report was stark in its lookout - namely that without deep, far-reaching efforts to decarbonise new and existing homes, the UK will not meet its legally-binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In this article, Brett Amphlett (BMF Policy & Public Affairs Manager) explains proposed changes to the Building Regulations and the likely implications for BMF members.

The CCC found that reductions in household emissions have stalled while energy use has increased. This report was unflinching in its criticism: cost-effective action to adapt and improve housing has not been done at anywhere near the level required. This is largely due to poorly-designed policies that failed, or were under-resourced, or both. Stop-start government initiatives like the Zero Carbon Homes Standard and the Green Deal simply failed to drive either the scale or the rate of home improvements required. So what’s next in the de-carbonisation of home heating ?

Future Homes Standard

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government began a consultation in October 2019 on a Future Homes Standard to improve energy efficiency and decarbonise heating in England. The main idea was that ministers propose to end fossil fuel heating in new homes by 2025.

The 97-page document is the first part of a two-part consultation process. This consultation seeks views on reducing emissions from new homes built after 2025 by changing Part L (Fuel & Power) and Part F (Ventilation) of the Building Regulations. The ambition is to end gas boiler connections in 6 years’ time in favour of heat pumps, heat networks and direct electric heating.

The Part L proposals are the most significant with two options put forward, as compared to the current 2013 Building Regs:

- Option 1: a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions via higher fabric standards for new homes that typically have triple glazing, gas-fired boiler and waste-water heat recovery - adding approx. £2,500 to build costs.
- Option 2: a 31% reduction via high (not higher) fabric standards and low-carbon heating in new homes that typically have double (not triple) glazing, gas-fired boiler, waste-water heat recovery and renewables like solar pv - adding approx. £4,850 to build costs.

The Part F proposals on ventilation relate to airtightness and improving the ‘as-built’ performance. The MHCLG recognises this package (if implemented) will add to the cost of building much-needed new homes. In return, ministers will remove the ability of local authorities to set more stringent local energy-efficient standards that go beyond the Building Regs. The consultation closes on 10 January 2020 and is at:  www.gov.uk/government/consultations/the-future-homes-standard-changes-to-part-l-and-part-f-of-the-building-regulations-for-new-dwellings

These proposals are a significant step-change in regulation and compliance because the priority becomes primary energy use, not carbon emissions. Whilst the spotlight is on de-carbonisation of heating, the electrification of heating merits a closer look because it is proving to be less problematic than first thought.

The worry is that moving from fossil fuels to electricity will put capacity within the grid under strain as demand for electricity in heating and transport increases. But heat pumps are capable of generating more heat than the electricity needed to run them. As the output performance of heat pumps improves over time, efficiency gains ought to help ease any strain on the grid.

When ministers have considered the responses, the second Future Homes Standard consultation is expected to invite views on:
- overheating in new homes
- energy efficiency standards for existing homes
- energy efficiency standards for new and existing non-residential buildings.

The Government’s preference in the first consultation is Option 2. Ministers believe it offers more carbon savings and lower energy bills - although it imposes higher new build costs. If home heating policy after 2020 does focus on heat pumps, it means larger radiators and heat emitters to compensate for lower temperatures. This opens up opportunities for merchants as the market evolves. For example: demand for thermostatic radiator valves in every room to limit overheating. Next Steps BMF plumbing & heating members know around 1½ million gas boilers are replaced each year. The prize to de-carbonise heating depends on consumers being given impartial advice and costed options to make carbon-friendly choices. Clear policy proposals with a sense of direction and urgency from government are critical to enable BMF members to innovate and invest in the materials & products that will be needed.

Last month, I saw two reports that attempted to put a price on de-carbonising home heating. Policy Connect (a think-tank) said it could cost households up to £1,300 to replace conventional boilers with hydrogen boilers. Capital Economics (a research consultancy) calculated that nearly 23 million homes will require a heat pump - at a run-rate of 1,770 per day - and estimated the cost at £192 billion overall.

The new Conservative Government faces a huge challenge to convert the wishes of voters into long-term action. Watch this space.


Find out more about our lobbying for members here


This article first appear in Professional Builders Merchants (PBM)

In February 2019, the Committee on Climate Change published a report that concluded the UK cannot meets its climate obligations without major improvements in housing. The “UK Housing: Fit for the Future” report was stark in its lookout - namely that

Supporting building materials innovation

By John Newcomb, BMF CEO
10 December 2019


John NewcombAs I write, we are in the midst of electioneering for the country’s first December general election in almost 100 years. While Brexit will, of course, play a large role in people’s voting preferences, there are many other areas where we would like to see our next Government take action.

The BMF’s Parliamentary Innovation Reception took place just before parliament was dissolved. Meeting with MPs across the political spectrum, we were able to shine a spotlight on the building materials sector’s investment in innovation and the contribution this makes to the country’s economy.  And we will continue to represent our members’ interests no matter which party the country elects.

We will work with the next Government to harness the current investment in innovation within the building materials sector, to help to deliver the jobs and growth that we will need in a post-Brexit economy.  

For example, action is needed to narrow the gap between housing demand and supply, including encouraging SME’s back into the new build market through improved availability for finance on decent terms.  Bold steps are also needed to simplify and speed up planning approvals.

Action is also needed to improve thermal performance and reduce energy demand in existing homes. Household energy efficiency should be a national infrastructure priority, with improvement incentives paid for from general taxation. 

However, we are concerned that current policies promote a move away from UK manufactured materials to offsite and modular homes where the raw materials are almost all imported.If not managed carefully this could result in the long-term demise of a very important UK based industry and the loss of the multiplier effect to the circular economy.

Going Digital


With more business being carried out online, the BMF has teamed up with the Electrical Distributors Association (EDA) to support and promote an initiative to provide a standard digitised format for technical product data, so it can be easily used within any digital sales platform.

The ETIM Classification Model is a tried and tested model that has been adopted by manufacturers and wholesalers in 13 major countries in continental Europe and by the USA and Canada.The UK has lagged behind other leading markets in its recognition of the importance of structured data in the supply chain. However, the ETIM model was adopted by the EDA two years ago as a ‘must’ for the digitisation of the UK electrical installation market and they are well down the route to full implementation. 

In addition to the electro-technical sector, the ETIM model encompasses Plumbing & Heating products and Building Materials. These three sectors will be operated by ETIM-UK, a joint-venture between the BMF and the EDA, with the BMF acting as sector lead for Building Materials and Plumbing and Heating. 

The BMF will begin the process of implementation from January 2020 and has engaged David Bate, who performed a similar role for EDA, as Project Manager. He will lead a number of ETIM Standardisation Working Groups where product specialists will pool their expertise to refine and anglicise the ETIM Standard for the UK market.

If you would like to know more about ETIM, or to be involved in one of the working groups, please get in touch with me directly at john.newcomb@bmf.org.uk


This article appeared in the November/December 2019 edition of Builders Merchants News
BMF CEO John Newcomb talks about the latest political activity and building materials innovations, sich as the ETIM classification model.

Water conservation: the BMF respond to DEFRA

4 December 2019

BMF respond to DEFRAMore stringent regulations governing personal water use are necessary if rising residential demand is to be met and managed in coming years. That was the message from the BMF to ministers in a consultation that closed just before the General Election was called.

Demand for water is increasing due to societal factors, including a rising population. Supply is threatened for several reasons, including increasing temperatures and decreasing rainfall, the BMF said in its response to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

DEFRA sought views on whether the current minimum standard of 125 litres per person per day for new homes in England should be changed. The BMF agreed and the optional standard of 110 litres allowed in the Building Regulations in water-stressed areas ought to apply to all new homes.

The BMF has seen forecasts by the National Infrastructure Commission that at least 3,300 million litres per day more water will be required by 2050. The BMF has also looked at figures from the Meteorological Office that show 2018 was the joint hottest English summer ever recorded, along with 2006, 2003 and 1976. Eighteen months ago, summer temperatures were above 30ºC for nearly a fortnight, putting 2018 in the top 5 driest years and top 5 sunniest years ever.

Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, commented: “Consumers do not give water a second thought unless there is too much - namely floods - or too little - notably hosepipe bans. Information and advice only go so far. I suspect an unspoken belief held by many is that water is a basic right and residents do not care enough yet to change habits. Until there are financial consequences to water use, rising demand will not be halted by urging people to change behaviour. More stringent Building Regulations on new homes are necessary.”

Mr Amphlett noted that awareness of the link between water use and energy bills amongst the public is low. Whether for baths and showers or washing clothes and utensils, using water has implications. Metering for some properties, eliminating leaks and labelling schemes help to put over a message to consumers to make better, more informed choices when using water.

The BMF also argued that above and below-ground rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems should be adopted more widely - at both an individual level and on a community scale - as a way to reuse and recycle water.


For the latest BMF policy updates please click here.

More stringent regulations governing personal water use are necessary if rising residential demand is to be met and managed in coming years. That was the message from the BMF to ministers in a consultation that closed just before the General Election

Merchant Overview Q3 2019

John Newcomb, Chief Executive, BMF
3 December 2019

John NewcombLast Quarter I found myself sitting on the fence and unwilling to predict whether the industry was on course for a period of negative growth.  Three months later, you find me in the same uncomfortable position.  Like the curate’s egg, construction results during Q3 have been good in parts.

If the latest ONS figures are accurate – and they are often revised as additional data becomes available – construction as a whole grew by 0.6% in Q3. This was driven by an increase in new work, which rose by 1.4%, but offset by poorer results for repair and maintenance work which was down by 0.8%.  Within this, private housing RMI output – a mainstay of merchant sales – fell by £150m over the quarter.

Meanwhile the Construction Products Association’s Q3 State of Trade Survey revealed marked differences between heavy side and light side product sales.  While 3% of heavy side manufacturers on balance reported a fall in sales in Q3 over Q2, sales of light side products, typically used in the later stages of construction, were reported to have increased by a balance of 54% of manufacturers. 

Looking forward, heavy side manufacturers continue to be cautious, with 11% anticipating a fall in sales in 2020 – the first negative reading of the CPA’s forward-looking indicator in seven years.

This decline in forward confidence is mirrored in the Federation of Master Builders Q3 State of Trade, where employment levels dipped for a second quarter, Q2 having seen the first decline in over 5 years. A balance of 19% of respondents predicted lower future workloads, an increase from 12% in the previous quarter.  86% also anticipated a rise in material prices.

That said, a balance of 34% of FMB builders reported a rise in current workloads in Q3 – up from 27% in Q2, giving some positive news.

Overall, however, 2019 is unlikely to go down as a classic year.  In July, the BMF downgraded its Forecast for merchant sales growth, and there is no reason to think this was not the right call.  Anecdotal reports from merchants over the late summer and into early autumn have come to pass in the Q3 BMBI data.  With the final quarter of the year dominated by a general election, I fear we will have to wait until 2020 to see evidence of the next upturn.



For more information please visit www.bmbi.co.uk

Last Quarter I found myself sitting on the fence and unwilling to predict whether the industry was on course for a period of negative growth. Three months later, you find me in the same uncomfortable position...

Rainy Day Trust plans to help people this Christmas

21 Novemberr 2019

Bryan CloverBryan Clover, CEO the Rainy Day Trust, talks about how the Rainy DayTrust is planning to help people this Christmas


“Each year at Christmas, we send out a small hamper or food voucher to our most vulnerable beneficiaries. In many cases, this is the only contact that they have with the outside world over the festive period. They also receive a hand-written Christmas card from us. It can be a difficult time for many, so a hamper with a few luxury items can make a huge difference. It has a small Christmas cake, tea, coffee, jam and biscuits among other things. Some prefer to have a voucher for their local market, especially those with dietary issues.

“We can also help with advice and guidance on debt which as we all know can become worse over Christmas. Wrap that up with our telephone counselling service and I think that you can see, we are able to give a strong level of support for people who may be struggling. As the industries that we support try to cope with the political chaos around Brexit, we hear from more and more people as they face reduced hours or redundancy.

“For the majority of people, Christmas is a time of fun and giving, but for many it is a different picture altogether. We can be there for them, giving direct help or advice and information on how to cope. With mental health starting to get the headlines that it needs, we can help people through a tough time. We are your charity, helping your people.

“The Christmas support doesn’t come free and we need to generate the funds to support it. We’ll be running a ‘12 Days of Christmas Auction’ on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and we are also asking businesses to sponsor a hamper for £50, or make a donation of stock that we can sell and then raise the money that we need.

“While you are sat with your family and friends this Christmas, spare a thought for those for whom Christmas can be a time to forget rather than remember.”

To make a donation or sponsor a hamper, go to https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/rdtchristmas2019. If you would like to donate stock that RDT can use, please email bryan@rainydaytrust.org.uk. Thank you.



This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of One Voice
Bryan Clover, CEO the Rainy Day Trust, talks about how the Rainy DayTrust is planning to help people this Christmas.

Plotting a course through the digital maze

by Andy Scothern, Managing Director, eCommonSense
19 November

Digital transformationFinding a digital solution that works for your merchant business and your trade customers can be confusing. Andy Scothern, Managing Director of eCommonSense, the digital transformation specialists for the building materials industry, plots a route through the digital maze.

Imagine if I offered to open a new branch for you. Not only that it could be your flagship ‘one-stop shop’, be near to everyone, never be closed, have the highest branch turnover and feature the full range of products. It would have the lowest operational overheads and be the cheapest to build and quickest to open.

That store, of course, is not a physical branch - it’s a fit-for-purpose digital branch that can offer everything that a physical branch can.

The digital dream sounds almost too good to be true, and for many the reality falls well short of the promised holy grail. So, why is that?

Well the short answer is that while many can see a simple path to getting online and starting to trade, they soon realise that unless you have an optimised solution that works for your business and your customers, it will never deliver the expected returns and may even drive your existing customers elsewhere. In other words, it could do more harm than good by damaging your brand through poor customer experience.

Rather than bamboozle with the science behind the tech, I want to simply present a practical ten-point plan that will show you what steps you need to take to get you trading online in an optimal way.

1. Choose the right digital partner

This is arguably the most important step. Get it right and you will be able to focus on what you do best - selling building products, while your digital partner can provide a solution that works for you, your customers and your business.

Get it wrong though and you could be watching through your fingers as existing customers go elsewhere to competitors with slicker online experiences and new customers visiting once, but leaving quickly.

So how do you find the right digital partner? The short answer is that you need someone who understands digital AND your merchant business, with all the unique complexities involved with multiple pricing, deliveries and product data. Once you apply that criteria the list will shrink considerably.

2.  You get what you pay for

The cheapest solution is rarely the best, but you can easily waste more than you need. A fully integrated solution will allow automatic data transfer between your website and back-office systems and fewer mistakes. The biggest cost will always be that of lost opportunities because your website is just not good enough. Sorry, no short cuts here.

3.  Make your customers happy

If people go to your website and have an easy and frictionless experience, they will stay and return to buy more. Good websites are good for business but it’s important to remember, the reverse is also true. In terms of customer experience, you want your online customers to have the same level of service as if they were to walk into one of your physical branches, if not better.

4.  Stay safe online

Security is a huge issue in today’s digital world. If you compromise your data or your customer’s data, then it can be hugely costly. World class security solutions are essential and they need to be continuously updated as criminals do not stand still. This should be a given with any system that you choose.

5.  Keep ahead of the competition

Websites and digital solutions need to be constantly evolving to ensure that you stay ahead of your competition and up-to-date with the latest functionality. Check that this is something that your digital partner does as a matter of course and doesn’t charge you for every small improvement.

6.  Don’t make me think

Customers want to be able to find the right products easily. To do that, they need to be able to find what they are looking for with ease, get their price and all the essential product data. The structure of your site needs to be intuitive so that visitors don’t get lost or confused.

7.  Product data

Even with a great website, bad product data will hamper all your efforts to make it a success. This is usually the biggest part of the project, so working with a partner who not only understands the products and the associated data, but has a product database you can access, relationships with suppliers and understands how to clean and organise data efficiently.

8.  Don’t forget mobile

If your website is not optimised for mobile, you will be missing out on more than half of your potential customers. 

9.  Content is king

Quality content can make the difference between a good experience and a bad one. When customers visit your website, they do so with a clear purpose in mind. Make the content reflect and support this journey. Get rid of the irrelevant and only include the useful.

10.  Extras make all the difference

Offering the functionality that your customers find useful and that saves them time can be the difference between them coming to you and your competitors. 

Customers may want access to their invoices or their account, the ability to build instant quotes or get help in being able to narrow down a search for a product with 1,000s of options such as bricks by simply uploading a photo.

Summary

If you have tried trading online and it has not gone as well as you’d hoped, remember that there’s no such thing as a bad idea, just bad execution, but that does not mean that online trading is bad for your business. 

Quite simply, you may just need a better solution than the one you have.For more information please contact Andy Scothern, Managing Director of eCommonSense at andy.scothern@ecommonsense.com.



This article appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of One Voice
Want to learn more? View the range of BMF digital training courses here

About the author

Andy Scothern has spent the majority of his working life in the building sector, initially as a joiner before establishing his own property development and home improvement company.

In the mid 1990s, he become interested in the internet and saw the commercial potential for the building supplies sector. After developing an in-depth and cutting-edge expertise through working with a range of international multi-channel businesses, he joined Jewson as Director of eCommerce and Digital with the responsibility for developing and launching the company’s online offer.

After leaving Jewson in 2013, he set up eCommonSense, a company that provides specialist builders merchant website solutions.
Finding a digital solution that works for your merchant business and your trade customers can be confusing. Andy Scothern, MD of eCommonSense, the digital transformation specialists for the building materials industry, plots a route through the digit

Together we are stronger

by John Newcomb, BMF CEO
12 November 2019

John NewcombAt the end of last month we saw the Brexit can kicked down the road yet again. As a members‘ organisation the BMF has not taken a position on the merits of leaving or remaining in the UK, but it is clear to us that continued uncertainty is badly serving the construction industry and the merchants who supply it.

Sales data produced for the BMF and published monthly in the Builders Merchants Building Index has tracked the ups and downs of sales values this year. Total merchant sales in Q1 were up by 5.9% over Q1 2018, driven by Timber and Joinery (+ 6.6%) and Heavy Building Materials (+ 6.8%).   Though partly weather related, the high volumes reflect contingency planning prior to the original Brexit date of 31 March, as everyone increased stock levels to ensure continuity of supply.

Conversely the second quarter saw weaker year-on-year growth in demand. The topline value indicator for Q2 2019 vs 2018 shows Timber & Joinery stable at -0.1%, balanced against minimal timber increases and a slight decline in sheet materials. 

Ongoing economic uncertainty led the BMF to revise its Industry Forecast of merchant sales for 2019.  Downward revisions for scenarios based on a soft and hard Brexit, now show annual growth at 2.9% (previously 3.8%) and at 2.6% (previously 3.4%) respectively.

Getting Brexit wrong has far-reaching consequences, yet most politicians have little or no grasp of how materials and products arrive at the end user. The BMF takes MPs to visit merchants in their constituency to explain their role, value and importance. For example, Hilary Benn, Brexit Select Committee Chair, visited Howarth Timber and, whilst he was Lib Dem Leader, Sir Vince Cable visited Alsford Timber. We also took members to our second Parliamentary Reception, at the House of Commons last month, where Nadim Zahawi, Minister for Business and Industry, spoke.

Post-Brexit trading issues – particularly relating to VAT, customs duty, dockside delays and timber imports – are top of the agenda in our dialogue with key ministers and MPs.  We voiced concern with HM Treasury on VAT and paying 20% more upfront on imports under a No Deal Brexit and successfully persuaded ministers to allow postponed accounting enabling members to account for import VAT on quarterly returns.  We are lobbying against other bureaucratic or financial burdens resulting from No Deal, including the move to replace CE Marking with a UK Conformity Assessment Marking. Productivity is also key. As cities prepared to introduce Clean Air Zones we argued that merchants have no choice but to use diesel HGVs to deliver heavy materials, persuading local councils to modify proposed fees and other criteria. 

With BMF member numbers above 700 for the first time since 1992, we now have a voice that can and will be heard. There is no doubt that “Together we are Stronger” – which was the theme of this year’s Members’ Conference. We will no doubt face significant challenges and changes in a world post Brexit but I am confident that by working together we can rise to meet those challenges.


Find out more about the BMF and the benefits of membership click here

To view the latest BMF policy updates click here


This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of Timber Trades Journal (TTJ)
As a members‘ organisation the BMF has not taken a position on the merits of leaving or remaining in the EU, but it is clear to us that continued uncertainty is badly serving the construction industry and the merchants who supply it.

Earn while you learn: Apprenticeships

by Hannah Taylor, former Apprentice and BMF Marketing Assistant
5 November 2019

Hannah Taylor (R) with Carmen Daley (L) who looks after the BMF’s Apprenticeship PlusHannah Taylor started her search for an apprenticeship in 2017. She found a Marketing Apprenticeship at the BMF on the GOV.UK website. The location was perfect, so she applied and started a 15 month apprenticeship in January 2018, which Hannah completed in 12 months.
“I wanted to make marketing my career,” explains Hannah. “My boyfriend encouraged me to look at apprenticeships as he started this way. He knew the benefits of ‘earning while you learn’. It’s the best way of getting your foot in the door, he said, and I wouldn’t regret it. He wasn’t wrong.

 “I had no knowledge of the sector, so I had to do a lot of research before my interview.” Hannah’s lack of awareness isn’t unusual. “I hadn’t considered an apprenticeship, and this wasn’t a career I was told about in school or college,” says Hannah.

The apprenticeship was more than learning about marketing. “I’ve learnt a lot about the building materials industry and why it’s important. The industry is growing, and companies are investing in the future, building both their businesses and their people. Everyone I’ve met at events and forums have been friendly and helpful. It’s not as male-dominated as I thought and there are plenty of inspirational female role models to look up to.”

That’s important because, as well as improving awareness, we need to change perceptions and inspire people of all ages, backgrounds and gender. Whether you’re setting out as a young person, or looking to switch careers, there’s an amazing breadth of jobs with opportunities to start in one role and progress or move around. 

“There is a skills gap, however I feel that there needn’t be as this is a friendly and welcoming industry which fosters diversity and inclusion and looks to attract and develop talented people,” says Hannah. “There’s great variety in careers with huge opportunities for progression. Sadly though, people that don’t work in the industry presume that the only career available is working in a yard, which is not the case. There are careers in marketing, IT, driving, finance, human resources and many more.”

After completing her apprenticeship, Hannah became a full-time Marketing Assistant at the BMF. “My role developed with every assignment I completed, and I was able to apply each piece of coursework to tasks and projects in my job. My confidence and abilities have grown, and I’ve gained responsibility. I now look after the relaunched BuildingMaterials Careers website, which is part of the BMF’s strategy to promote job opportunities, and help members recruit a workforce from a wide range of backgrounds and experience.”

Hannah’s advice to people considering an apprenticeship or career in the building materials sector is: “Do it! You won’t regret it. There’s a reason so many people in the sector have been working in it for most of their careers. It’s an excellent industry to work in. If you have the ambition, drive and determination to succeed, you’ll go far. My ambition is to work my way up. It will take time and a lot of hard work, but I know I can do it!”


The BMF is proud to support The Worshipful Company of Builders’ Merchants (WCoBM) with its campaign - #BuildACareerWithoutLimits - to ‘shout out’ for construction and communicate career opportunities in our sector. Here, WCoBM asks young people in merchanting how training, education and apprenticeships have helped them develop their careers. 

Inspirational stories like these are at the heart the BMF’s Building Materials Careers campaign and the WCoBM’s #BuildACareerWithoutLimits campaign – real life case studies that help transform and improve perceptions. The campaign targets apprentices; school, college and university leavers; people who work in the sector or are thinking of a change of career.

WCoBM has dedicated funds to support training and education with a new bursary of up to £2,000 a person. Available through its Charity Fund, the bursary is open to apprentices and students looking to work for a builders’ merchant or supplier, and to people working in the sector. 

If you would like to apply directly, or know someone who could benefit from the bursary, visit www.wcobm.co.uk/about/build-your-career. Applications are subject to specific criteria.


This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of BMN

To find out more about the BMF's Apprenticeship Plus service click here


Hannah Taylor (R) with Carmen Daley (L) who looks after the BMF’s Apprenticeship Plus
Hannah Taylor started her search for an apprenticeship in 2017. She found a Marketing Apprenticeship at the BMF on the GOV.UK website. The location was perfect, so she applied and started a 15 month apprenticeship in January 2018, which Hannah comple

Rewarding Commitment

by Richard Ellithorne, BMF Membership Services Director
29 October 2019

Richard EllithorneThe BMF continually looks to improve and expand the range of courses on offer to support members in developing their teams’ skills and knowledge. Indeed, BMF training is one of the top five reasons members give for joining. The BMF Awards Dinner in September recognised two merchants who have shown exceptional commitment to this training in nurturing the talent that will take the merchant sector forward.

This year’s BMF Training Company of the Year is Howarth Timber and Building Supplies, with Dumfries Timber Company taking the Honorary Achievers Award.

Howarth Timber and Building Supplies demonstrated their support for team development with a training programme encompassing both formal and informal routes. For a company with just over 30 branches, Howarth has no fewer than 15 team members undertaking the BMF Diploma in MerchantManagement course, which equips candidates with key managerial skills that they can immediately apply back at work.

Howarth also has 22 apprentices supported by the BMF Apprenticeships Plus Levy Management Service and has purchased 100 BMF Building Blocks modules to introduce them to the intricacies of life in a builders’ merchant. The online training programme builds into a comprehensive guide both to the industry and the products stocked and sold.

In addition, Howarth encourages team members to build knowledge through informal routes, participating in BMF’s specialist Forums, including Timber, Plumbing & Heating, Bricks, Blocks & Landscaping and Marketing, and attending key events including the recent Conference in Dubrovnik and the first BMF Young Merchants Conference in 2018. 

Their rounded approach makes Howarth well-deserved winners of the 2019 BMF Training Company of the Year Award.

Honorary Achievers Award

Operating from three branches, Dumfries Timber is one of the BMF’s smaller merchant members but they have consistently punched above their weight in developing their team. They are the only BMF member in Scotland to have participated in BMF training programmes in each of the last six years. Training extends across every level of the business from Apprenticeships to the BMF Diploma – with two team members within each of these programmes.

Dumfries Timber also utilised BMF’s two and four day courses, including the Yard Foreman’s Toolkit, How a House is Built, the Margin Improvement Programme and Management Training. On a pro-rata basis they have consistently provided more BMF training per employee than any other member in their region and are extremely worthy winners of the Honorary Achievers Award.

Young Achievers

The BMF Awards Dinner also celebrates the achievements of Apprentices and those taking the next steps up their chosen career ladder.

Nathan Jones of South Coast Building Supplies, BMF Apprentice of the Year Level 2. Nathan is undertaking a Trade Supplier apprenticeship through the BMF ATA. After 6 months in the warehouse followed by 6 months on the trade counter he has shown professionalism in both areas. He has also embraced independent learning, seeking opportunities to enhance his knowledge and improve performance, including enhancements to the trade counter showroom.

Tom Savage of Wyckham Blackwell, BMF Apprentice of the Year Level 3. Tom’s apprenticeship as a Business Administrator has involved some challenging tasks but he has retained a positive attitude to his studies throughout. Described by colleagues as a pleasure to work with, he is organised, hardworking and embraces every opportunity to learn and meet targets.

Finally, Jane Axford of Tamar Trading was named Best BMF Diploma Student, while Cameron Clarke of Longwater Supply is the best BMF Building Blocks Learner.

Congratulations to all BMF Award winners.


BMF training ranges from formal Apprenticeships and sector-specific Diplomas and a Foundation Degree in Merchant Management, to on-line product knowledge and other specialist skills training. To find out more about any aspect of BMF training, contact paige.godsell@bmf.org.uk or on 02456 854980, or click here

This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of Professional Builders Merchant (PBM)

The BMF continually looks to improve and expand the range of courses on offer to support members in developing their teams’ skills and knowledge. Indeed, BMF training is one of the top 5 reasons members give for joining.

A sense of belonging

by John Newcomb, CEO of the BMF
22 October 2019

John NewcombAt last month’s BMF Members’ Conference I outlined the next stage of our plans to work more closely with all our members.  

Over the last 12 months we have undertaken a “deep dive” review to better understand the varying needs of each different segment of our membership.  In particular, we are seeking to improve levels of engagement through our new Building Excellence Strategy, introduced last year, which aims to make BMF membership essential within the industry, rather than merely desirable.

The strategy has at its core our desire to continue to build membership value by providing a more personalised membership experience.  Through our research we have identified six different groupings of merchant members each with roughly similar needs.  

We discovered that the proactive groups are engaging with us because they believe strongly in the BMF and as a result, they feel they belong.  Our priority is to engage with the three member groups that are predominantly reactive at present, so they come to believe strongly enough in the BMF to feel that they too belong.

Next steps

Our initial focus will be on three categories. Plumbing & Heating Merchants are the specialist independents operating in this segment.  Unignited Advancers are mainly smaller independents who currently make zero use of BMF services, and Aspiring Progressors who make only ad-hoc or minimal use of BMF services.

We are encouraging all members to complete a short on-line survey, which will give us a better idea of their service requirements. Our Regional Managers will be talking to members in the priority categories about the specific needs of their businesses both to provide focused service bundles, and to develop ways to reduce the amount of time required to attend meetings and training at regional centres. The Regional Managers will also provide prompts, to members who request this, so they don’t miss opportunities that may benefit them.  

Regional services

We know that taking time out of the business can be a problem, particularly for smaller businesses. Over the last two years we have been developing a network of Regional Centres of Excellence around to country to make it easier to engage with BMF events and training closer to home. There are 29 centres already in place and we hope to have 30 by the end of the year.  In addition, we are adding another tier, branded BMF Regional Training Centres, which will be ideal for smaller groups to meet on an even more localised level.  For example, the first Regional Training Centre, at Independent Slate Supplies in Saltash, will provide an excellent base for members in Plymouth and parts of Cornwall.

Political representation

These initiatives have largely stemmed from the 2018 Member Survey, which highlighted what members most wanted from the BMF. Political representation was another area highlighted by this research. With BMF member numbers now above 700 for the first time since 1992, we now have a voice that can and will be heard. 

In the current climate, post-Brexit trading issues – particularly relating to VAT, customs duty, dockside delays and timber imports – are top of the agenda in our dialogue with key ministers and MPs.  At this Autumn’s party conferences BMF Policy and Public Affairs’ Brett Amphlett and I met the new Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell. We will also be at the Conservative Party Conference and look forward to taking members to our second Parliamentary Reception, at the House of Commons on October 29th, where Nadim Zahawi, Minister for Business and Industry will be speaking.

There is no doubt that “Together we are Stronger” - the theme of this year’s Members’ Conference.  We truly believe that together we can strive to achieve excellence throughout our industry. We will no doubt face significant challenges and changes in a world post Brexit but, as I said at our Conference, I am confident that by working together we can rise to meet those challenges.


This article appeared in the October 2019 edition of Builders’ Merchants News (BMN)
The BMF is seeking to improve levels of engagement with members through its Building Excellence Strategy, which aims to make BMF membership essential within the industry, rather than merely desirable.

Benchmark performance against your peers

BMF Members benefit from a number of exclusive reports that enable independent merchants to benchmark performance against their peers.  How would you measure up?
16 October 2019


BMF KPI reportThe BMF’s Key Performance Indicators Report is one of a suite of survey reports available only to BMF members.  It analyses ratios such as sales growth, trading margins, sales from stock, gross profit, net profit, sales and profit per employee, transport costs, bad debts and other key indicators.

The 2019 BMF KPI Report for the 12 months ending April 2019 has just been published following a survey carried out among BMF members in mid-2019. Member returns covered the periods to their year ends that fell between 1 May 2018 and 30 April 2019. The ratios used within the report are a selection from the full survey findings, using a core sample of participants that enables a true like for like comparison with previous years ratios.

Although the period covered mirrors the final stages of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations and failure to pass her deal through Parliament.  While this undoubtedly weighed on consumer confidence, the impact on merchant performance appears to be limited. The industry’s resilience is reflected in a 9.9% increase in sales despite continuing political and economic uncertainty.  That said, the previous year’s double digit growth has declined to single digit growth.

Trading margins at 29% also decreased slightly continuing a downward trend, down from 29.4% in 2018 and 30.3% in 2017. Reflecting this, net profitability in 2019 also declined by 0.7%. However, sales per employee continued an upward trajectory, increasing by 3.1% on the previous year. Gross profit per employee also increased.

Another BMF annual survey, again based on member returns, reports on remuneration in independent merchants. The latest BMF Remuneration Report shows salaries, wages paid and benefits given to merchant members’ staff – detailed for each specific job role - as at 1 April 2019, for each of the thirteen UK Standard Planning Regions and nationally.

The BMF Remuneration Report also includes employee statistics providing further useful indicators such as employee churn within the industry, gender diversity and apprentices joining the industry.  

While there are regional differences, the national male:female employee ratio this year is a disappointing 84% male to 16% female – a disappointing drop in female representation from the 81:19 percentage ratio reported in the 2018 survey.  On a more positive note, for the first time the 2019 Remuneration Report includes a separate gender ratio for apprentices.  The national ratio here, 73% male to 27% female, may at least point to greater equality in future. 

Also in the suite of member exclusive reports, the BMF State of Trade Survey, is a quarterly publication measuring confidence within the market. Merchant members complete the survey and responses are collaged to create the report which focuses on sales, costs, investment, employment and, of course, Brexit.

Other reports are available free of charge to BMF members but with a cover charge to non-members. These include the new Builders Merchant Industry Forecast, which launched earlier this year and is published quarterly.  Unlike the reports mentioned earlier this is not based on member returns. The data is taken from a unique forecasting model specifically aligned to the UK merchant sector that has been developed to support BMF members in future planning by providing consistent updates on forecasted sales.

While most forecast models tend to be based on lag indicators, taking what happened last year to predict what could happen next year, the BMF model incorporates a number of lead indicators to signal future events that will impact the building materials market, making it possible for merchants and their suppliers to forecast their customers’ requirements more accurately.

These reports are among the many services provided to BMF members. To find out more about the full benefits of membership and how to join, click here

You can read more about BMF’s suite of reports here or contact Nyssa Patel, BMF Industry Analyst/Economist at nyssa.patel@bmf.org.uk.


This article first appeared in the October 2019 edition of Builders Merchants Journal (BMJ)
BMF Members benefit from a number of exclusive reports that enable independent merchants to benchmark performance against their peers. How would you measure up?

Four years of the Apprenticeship Levy

by Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy & Public Affairs Manager
8 October 2019

Gillian Keegan MP learning about bricklaying at Chichester College. She is the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Apprentices and was an apprentice at 16 in LiverpoolIt is four years since the Apprenticeship Levy first saw the light of day. It was the brainchild of George Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, during the 2015 General Election. Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, updates us on his article featured in the autumn 2016 edition of One Voice, six months before the Levy took effect.

The original aim of the Levy

The Apprenticeship Levy was the preferred choice to fulfil the Manifesto commitment of 3 million new apprentices before April 2020. This equates to an annual run-rate of 600,000 - an increase of 20% on 2014-2015 levels.

In his July 2015 Budget, the former Chancellor announced legislation for this levy to shift the burden of responsibility from taxpayers to employers. Ministers made other far-reaching changes to funding, standards and administration of apprenticeships that affect all firms.

The original aim sought to address:

- poor productivity in the United Kingdom compared to international competitors and
- the significant fall in employers’ investment in workplace training over 20 years.

At the 2018 Conservative Conference, another former Chancellor, Philip Hammond MP, moved to stave off criticism in two ways:

- obligated employers are now allowed to spend up to 25% of Levy contributions on apprentices in other companies
- SME employers not liable to pay the Levy had their share of costs cut in half from 10% to 5% - taxpayers now pay the remaining 95%.

Parliamentary criticism

The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has reviewed progress so far. MPs found it does not provide value for money. Their report makes for depressing, but familiar, reading.

The Department for Education (DfE) has failed to make progress. Apprentice starts fell by 26% after the Levy was introduced and - although numbers are recovering - the 3 million target will not be reached by the target date in six months. In addition:

- employers are using Levy funds for professional training or management courses that they would have otherwise paid for themselves; and
- the programme is heavily-skewed towards higher-level apprenticeships - Level 2 learners are now only 20% of starts - before the Levy began, 40% used to be Level 2.

In July, using the Tory Leadership contest as camouflage, HM Treasury sneaked out its response. On all six criticisms, the Government accepted the PAC recommendations without quibbling. The next day, the Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships resigned before Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister - she is a Remainer and refuses to work for him.

Employers’ criticism

City and Guilds says 95% of obligated employers were unable to spend their allowance in year one. The number of starts has been falling since it came into force. Year-on-year figures show 132,000 starts between August and October 2018, compared to 155,600 in the same period two years earlier.

The BMF is not alone in airing concern at long-term viability. The CBI has told us the budget will be overspent by £½ billion this year and £1½ billion in 2021-2022. Ministers will have to choose between allocating more funds, curtailing some apprenticeships or reducing public funding for certain apprentices.

Three possible remedies are:

- more flexibility to spend Levy contributions on other training, but increasing the rate from 0.5% 
- maintain the status quo with extra taxpayers’ funding to cover the overspend
- narrowing the scope of the Levy to focus on learners aged 16-25 years, or on Levels 2 to 5.

The first needs proper discussion between Whitehall and business. There are two scenarios:

- either employers have asked the Department to raise the rate so the extra money can be used for wider types of training or
- DfE ministers are struggling to stay within spending limits and want employers and trade associations to lobby HM Treasury for more money in the current Spending Round.

The BMF does not want ill-judged changes to meet arbitrary targets to spare ministers from criticism over policy and budgetary failure. No-one seems to be collecting data on the number of completions, the rate of drop-outs and reasons that learners do not persevere.

Your views

The BMF invites views about changes you think could help you. Ideas we are canvassing are:

- holding a firm line that the Levy pays for apprentices only - not other types of training - and making the current system work before tinkering
- extending the length of time available to spend contributions from 2 years (as now) to 3 or more.

If it is decided to allow Levy funds to be spent on other training, these could include:

- training for older employees for whom an apprenticeship may not be suitable
- helping the unemployed back into work and retraining including ex-offenders.

The BMF can help you

BMF Apprenticeships Plus is an apprentice management and employment service and offers two services to members:

- an Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA) which acts as the apprentices’ formal employer - taking full administrative responsibility - and placing them with a host member.
- a Levy management service that will source and contract the training provider and negotiate the cost of apprenticeship training and manage and monitor payment from the member’s levy account. Also, if required, it can help companies to recruit suitable apprentices.

Conclusion

Ministers cannot be deaf to specific issues raised by trade associations like the BMF. It is bad enough that the Department for Education has had to try to put things right so soon after the policy began.

The Apprenticeship Levy is not working properly. Unless it is overhauled, construction firms will find it harder to invest in the quantity and quality of new learners - especially in the SME manual trades who are the customers of merchants.

Government changes this summer allows Boris Johnson’s ministers the latitude to take a fresh look and make changes to the policy and how it operates. It makes no sense for BMF members to pay this Levy without taking on apprentices or to have unspent money confiscated by the HMRC.


If you would like to share your views on the Levy with the BMF please email Brett Amphlett at brett.amphlett@bmf.org.uk.


This article first appeared in the Autumn 2019 edition of One Voice magazine
BMF blog: It's four years since the Apprenticeship Levy first saw the light of day - the brainchild of George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 2015. Brett Amphlett, BMF Policy and Public Affairs Manager, updates us on the Levy.

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