Missing the mark: the pressing problem for building products

The incoming government needs to urgently address the negative impact of the new post-Brexit standards regime on the building products market, finds Greg Pitcher

The year was 1993. Inflation ran as low as 1.6 per cent, Manchester United won the inaugural Premier League and the CE mark was introduced in the UK. A lot has changed in the three decades since. Fast forward 30 years, and Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey and United boss Erik Ten Hag face varying degrees of challenge in attempting to replicate the first two achievements. And the demise of the CE mark in the UK appears set in stone.

Since the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU, Whitehall has been preparing the ground for the replacement of the stamp that shows products comply with the bloc’s standards. From 11pm on 31 December, any fully-manufactured items marketed at British users will instead require a UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) mark to show they have been tested by an accredited body.

Last year, industry figures publicly warned that the amount of work needed to be carried out at British testing facilities – which for some products simply do not exist – will cause items to disappear from the British market. Infrastructure, net-zero ambitions and post-Grenfell safety improvements could all be at risk, they said.

Has anything changed in this respect? Or are we a few months away from another material crisis?

Necessary steps

The government has described the product mark change as a “necessary” step. During a recent online discussion run by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), one official said the move would allow the UK to “take back control” and stop “taking rules from other countries”.

Peter Caplehorn, chief executive of the Construction Products Association, sees it rather differently. “The UKCA mark is only applicable in the UK – you still need CE marking to sell into Europe,” he says. “Advantage: very little. Cost: huge. Concern and disruption: significant.”

We put out a call to all our members and found a significant set of product groups that could not get certified or tested at any time”

Peter Caplehorn, Construction Products Association

The looming deadline for introducing the UKCA mark to prove regulatory conformity adds a layer of uncertainty that is further damaging to industry, he adds. “We have examples of product ranges coming into the UK being reduced because overseas manufacturers can’t be bothered to go through all this. Anecdotally, we also believe it is affecting investment and innovation. All these issues come into play at a time when we are coming out of a pandemic. We have global supply challenges, inflation, energy costs, container costs and disruption from China.”

There are 444 categories of construction product listed by the government as subject to designated standards and therefore requiring the new conformity mark. These include a huge range of everyday building-site items, such as masonry mortar, lintels and floor screeds.

The EU’s Assessment and Verification of Constancy of Performance (AVCP) system will effectively continue to form the basis of testing products against the UK’s new standards, which are themselves copied across entirely from the harmonised standards used for the CE mark across the union.

Significant gaps

By sticking to the EU’s standards, little is changing at face value, but dig a little deeper and a number of details emerge that are causing alarm among those in the know. Caplehorn says the beauty of the harmonised system across Europe was that manufacturers from any member state could send their products to be certified by recognised testing bodies throughout the union. “We had a community of about 770 organisations that provided those services,” he says.

Now, just 48 domestic organisations have been given ‘approved body’ status, allowing them to certify construction products for the UK market. “We put out a call to all our members and found a significant set of product groups that could not get certified or tested at any time,” says Caplehorn.

“Glass, glues and sealants, and passive fire-protection products have no facility in the UK. Then, for radiator testing, for example, there is only one facility. To retest all the radiators on the UK market would take 75 years.”

Without certification and testing, the products cannot be sold. This issue was raised by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) last year in an open letter to ministers. The disappearance of such items from builders’ merchants would damage the UK construction sector, it said, and “also the government’s ambitions around housebuilding, infrastructure, building safety and net-zero in the built environment”.

Easing the burden

In June, ministers announced some measures designed to ease the burden. Among them was the announcement that some types of goods – including radiators, sealants and tile adhesives – would not need to be retested in the UK if they had been tested under EU rules before the end of this year.

Other construction products, however, are subject to rules that mean they need new testing and certification if they had not previously been certified by a UK body before the end of 2020. “We have asked British industry to take a product that has already been tested and certified at huge expense – these tests can cost several hundred thousand pounds – and to retest and recertify using the same tests to receive a new letter on the stamp,” says Caplehorn. “Many manufacturers see this as a total waste of money.”

Other measures introduced by the government to ease industry concerns include allowing assessment work started by EU bodies this year to count towards UKCA accreditation in 2023, and allowing CE-compliant stock imported into Britain this year to be sold in the future without a UKCA mark.

Spare parts will also be allowed into the country if they met the requirements in place when the original items were introduced. And UKCA markings will be allowed as sticky labels or within accompanying documents such as instruction booklets, rather than permanently stamped on the product, as happens with products earning the current CE mark, for a period of time.

But Caplehorn is not convinced the concessions will solve the root of the problem for construction manufacturers. “The current position is not good,” he says. “It is better than it was before the easement, but there are a number of remaining concerns. And down the track there are a number of further problems that have not been part of the agenda because everybody has been focused on the top line.”

First, he points out, British manufacturers don’t exist in a bubble. If a firm in Lancashire, for example, is making products for sale in Belfast, Birmingham and Bordeaux, it could feasibly require three different product markings next year: the UKCA stamp for the domestic market, the CE marking for sale in the EU, and the UK(NI) tag, which is necessary for many UK-certified products to be sold in the province. “The Northern Ireland issue is another level of complexity, especially with the lack of clarity over the protocol,” he adds.

Post-Grenfell innovation

Perhaps an even bigger concern is how the set-up of the new certification system could stifle the innovation desperately needed for the construction industry to meet its immediate goals. The government has been unwavering in its intention to require all new products coming to market from 2023 to go through UK-based testing and certification. “They are saying, ‘You will be fine as long as you don’t innovate’,” Caplehorn says.

“The range of new products coming on to the market will slow down. People will increasingly notice on site that they can’t get new products or technologies they want to use to increase building safety or fire protection.”

“For manufacturers not using UK testing facilities, the need to have products retested will cause delays to their arrival in the UK, possibly affecting existing product shortages”

Sarah Colwell, BRE Group

All this hampers progress towards meeting the government’s own agenda for the construction industry, he warns. “We are still on the reform agenda, following the Grenfell Inquiry, and our members are very keen to be on that journey. The situation with UKCA is a hindrance.

“Construction products innovate by stealth – it is not about big, shiny, new models, but look back 10 years and compare the performance of building products with today. They are increasingly cutting down waste, carbon, assembly mistakes. Innovation is going on all the time, making the industry better and ultimately making buildings better for people living in them. We worry about things that come along and create a drag on that process.”

At the online discussion, CN asked a BEIS official about testing capacity concerns. They said: “We have introduced a retesting measure to spread demand for testing over up to five years to ensure there is sufficient capacity to deal with new products as we don’t want to disrupt innovation in the UK.

“Duplicative testing can be done over the course of five years, so manufacturers can spread the cost and the testing industry can allow new products to come through.”

Capacity limits

Sarah Colwell, head of technical codes and standards at BRE Group, one of the 48 approved bodies for UKCA construction-product certification, says it has seen its workload soar due to the markings switch – including rising demand from across the English Channel. “One effect felt by BRE was the number of enquiries we fielded from testing houses in the European market asking whether BRE could undertake their UKCA marking,” she says. “This had an inevitable effect on capacity, as BRE and other UK testing houses saw the volume of their work increase.”

While Colwell thinks UK-based testing facilities will be “well prepared” for domestic UKCA duties, she says the broader picture could exacerbate supply issues. “For manufacturers not using UK testing facilities, the need to have products retested will cause delays to their arrival in the UK, possibly affecting existing product shortages,” she warns.

“We are supporting our construction clients as far as we are able to, to make sure they are aware of the new regulatory position, while accepting there are clarifications required from the regulators as the new system is being implemented that are causing some additional delays, concerns and costs.”

Caplehorn is talking to the government regularly through his role at the CLC, where he co-chairs a product availability working group. “We have had good access to construction ministers – if they would just stay in post for 10 seconds it would be very helpful,” he jokes. “The issue for me is making sure we continue communication to avoid significant disruption. We are trying to avoid a deep recession and the £130bn construction industry has a big part to play.”

The CLC’s open letter to then levelling up secretary Michael Gove and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng last year made six suggestions for tackling the challenges thrown up by switching product conformity marks. These included providing support for an expansion of UK testing capacity, allowing approved bodies to subcontract work overseas and extending the length of time that CE tags can be used.

After the extra measures were announced earlier this summer, the Construction Products Association set out five questions that remained, calling for clarity on similar issues and asking for an update on progress setting up new standards and processes. However, just over a fortnight later, larger political events overshadowed the agenda.

“We haven’t had anything official back from government as the easement announcement coincided with the resignation of the prime minister,” says Caplehorn. “But I am convinced officials recognise the potential problem. It is one of the big priorities for me [when the next government is formed].”

In response to a request to address the issues raised in this article, a government spokesperson said: “The UK now has its own regulatory goods regime, which gives us the opportunity to make our regulations work in the best interests of consumers and businesses. We have introduced the UK marking to replace CE marking for the GB market, which businesses should be prepared to adopt before 1 January 2023.”

Caplehorn believes the switch has not been handled as well it could have been. “It would be simpler if the UK said you can use European facilities as you have for the past 40 years, [and]  then apply for a UKCA mark when you market in the UK. Unfortunately, politics gets in the way.”

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