by John Newcomb, BMF Chief Executive
20 September 2017
Over the summer we have seen conflicting speculation in both the national and trade press on the general state of the economy and how the construction industry is faring.
For example, the BMF’s Builders Merchants Building Index (BMBI) recorded growth throughout the first half of the year, which on first viewing seems at odds with data issued by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) for Q2.
Whereas the initial ONS Q2 results reported that construction output rose by just 0.4% on the same period last year and fell by 1.3% compared with Q1 2017, the BMBI found that builders merchants saw Q2 sales increase by 5.3% (when adjusted for there being two less trading days in the period) compared to 2016, with year-to-date sales figures 3.8% higher than the same period last year.
Initial ONS data is often revised – which may have happened by the time you read this. On the other hand, it may not be too much at odds with the BMBI and other indicators. Most of the other major trade association Q2 reports – including CPA, FMB and NFB – found that order books are being sustained by private housing and RMI work – the mainstay of many a merchant’s business – while commercial sectors are falling behind. Even the relatively gloomy ONS statistics reported a record 5.1% increase in private housing in June over May.
Having spent much of August on the road visiting 20 or so BMF members in the SW and NE of England and in Scotland, I think the merchant sector can best be described as resilient. I found striking similarities across all the merchants I spoke to. Every one of them reported sales growth through the first half of the year – even those in parts of the country affected by adverse weather conditions in the early summer months.
However, whilst these regional merchants have seen little evidence of a slow down in overall sales they are reporting more price increases, an inevitable result of the falling exchange rate, and shortages in certain product areas.
Attempting to forecast the future is notoriously unreliable, but it would be foolish not to consider the possibility of tougher trading conditions as we move into 2018. Indeed, BMF Members’ Day this month is dedicated to exploring possible scenarios for the building industry in a post Brexit economy. We have lined up a wide range of speakers to give their views including a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee, the CBI’s Brexit expert and the FMB’s Vice President.
We are also delighted to welcome the Minister of State for Housing and Planning, Alok Sharma. Mr Sharma is responsible for the government’s housing and home ownership policy as well as the planning policy which underpins it. Other important parts of his portfolio include estates regeneration and regulation of the private rented sector. With so much merchant business driven by housing, this session is not to be missed.
The turn of the academic year is traditionally the time to take on apprentices. In May, the BMF formed an accredited Apprenticeship Training Agency (ATA). As an ATA, the BMF acts as the formal employer of the apprentices, who are placed with member companies. By acting as the employer, the BMF ATA removes potential administrative hurdles making it easy for BMF members to take on an apprentice in any job role.
This is a hugely exciting initiative. We are currently in dialogue with over 40 member companies who are looking to develop their next generation of employees. This first tranche of enquiries alone could lead to 200 new apprentices joining the industry.
Twenty one apprenticeships have already been confirmed, including the BMF’s own Level 2 Customer Service Practitioner. We wish every one of them well in their future careers.
This article appeared in the September 2017 edition of Builders' Merchants News