How the great British DIY shortage unfolded

An increased global demand for materials has meant shortages in the UK

Woman buys materials
(Image credit: HELMUT FOHRINGER/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

DIY enthusiasts may have to put off any new projects until after the summer, as a major shortage of building materials leaves suppliers struggling to meet demand.

Cement, timber, steel, paint and electrical components are increasingly difficult – if not impossible – to source, causing problems not just for those looking to carry out home improvements, but for building firms too.

Building firms could be forced to delay projects or even close down, says The Construction Leadership Council, which blames “unprecedented levels of demand” for the situation, which it says is likely to “continue for the foreseeable future”.

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Roland Glancy, managing director of design service Peek Home, warned consumers to delay home improvement projects “until autumn”.

“The last thing you want is to knock through a wall and then struggle to get hold of a bag of plaster to complete your vision leaving you living in a building site, just when we should be enjoying our new freedoms,” he told the BBC.

Why is there a shortage?

Huge demand from consumers keen to start their DIY projects since the easing of lockdown restrictions is just part of the problem, exacerbating existing supply issues.

Another factor is a thriving housing market, “which recorded its strongest April sales for 14 years last month”, reports the Daily Mail.

The surge in demand has led to a “building boom”, with demand for builders rising at the fastest rate in a decade and suppliers facing “incredible pressure”, says the paper.

Indeed, demand in the home improvement, repair and maintenance markets is 19% higher over the same period.

Timber is one of the materials in shortest supply, according to the Construction Leadership Council, and one of our biggest imports into the UK, as British wood is not of the right quality for construction.

Warm weather in Scandinavia has affected timber production, meaning that the small amount of timber coming into the UK has already been pre-sold. High demand for wood internationally has also seen other economies “prepared to pay more than Britain”, according to the Builders Merchants Federation.

This is on top of an already increased demand for the use of wood during construction, as architects and the construction industry “focus on incorporating as many net-zero products as possible”, said The Times.

Shipping issues are also a major factor behind shortages: while the UK produces around three-quarters of its building materials, many are imported. Products such as paint, polymers and finished goods, as well as raw materials like timber and copper are often sourced from abroad and need to be shipped to the UK.

The Times says “post-Brexit frictions at the ports” have hampered the arrival of these materials, with delays then exacerbated by a shortage of shipping containers due to Covid-19, combined with a sharp rise in global demand.

This means shipping rates have been pushed up: the cost of shipping a 40ft container from Asia to Northern Europe soared from $1,500 (£1,061) in summer 2020 to more than $8,300 (£5,873) by May 2021, according to the BBC.

In many ways, the UK is facing a perfect storm of issues: increasing global demand for materials creates a struggle to import raw materials into the UK, ever-lengthening lead times for orders, and rocketing prices.

The Office for National Statistics expects a rise of 7-8% in prices for materials, with increases for certain materials, such as timber, expected to more than double this year.

When will things improve?

The Construction Leadership Council has warned that the availability of certain materials would “worsen before it improved”, and is expecting strong demand to continue over the next six months.

High shipping costs are “likely to subside in the next three to six months”, reports the BBC, although increased global demand for building materials could remain high for the next nine months – making it likely that the UK will be facing shortages for some time yet.

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.