(last updated July 2019)
What has been happening in the roofing industry
The construction industry as a whole generally enjoyed plentiful demand for its services between the late 1990s and the mid 2000s. There were some problems - skilled labour was often hard to find and insurance costs rocketed for some - but a strong housing market and a growing economy meant there was generally plenty of roofing work to go around.
Unfortunately things came a bit unstuck during the late 2000s as the economy nose-dived and the housing market more or less collapsed. Many construction businesses were forced to lay off staff and it became a struggle for some to find enough new work. The economy remained very weak during the early 2010s, but things did begin to improve during 2013 and 2014 was a much better year for many.
The recovery in the construction industry continued strongly into the first half of 2015 due to wages going up, low interest rates, falling oil prices and people's confidence in their employment. This produced the longest period of sustained growth since the financial crisis, with uninterrupted growth from May 2013 until June 2015. The recovery in the construction industry lost momentum in the third and fourth quarters of 2015, however, and it entered recession in the first half of 2016. Official statistics for the third quarter of the year showed that construction output was at its weakest for four years. This was thought to be largely due to the economic uncertainty following the vote in June 2016 to leave the EU. Despite the overall fall in all work in November 2016, new work increased, with new housing output continuing to grow, driven by:
- an increase in public housing in the wake of the government's drive to provide 400,000 affordable housing starts by 2020
- continued growth in private housing due to historically low interest rates and the loosening of private planning restrictions
Growth in the construction industry remained subdued during 2017. Little change is expected for 2018 - the Construction Products Association forecast that the sector would remain flat, at best, during 2018. New private industrial orders have been falling and growth has been dependent on an increase in infrastructure activity and private housebuilding offsetting a sharp fall in the commercial and industrial sectors. This pattern is expected to continue in 2018.
Following the decision in June 2016 to leave the EU, the value of sterling fell sharply, increasing the cost of imported construction materials substantially. As a result, margins, which were already under pressure in 2016, were squeezed further in 2017. Higher costs, weaker demand and the uncertainty resulting from the Brexit negotiations made for tough trading conditions during 2017 and into 2018.
The loss of jobs in the industry resulting from the downturn following the financial crisis has led to a skills shortage. Some 300,000 skilled craftsmen left the industry, many for good. This has led to higher potential earnings for roofers.
The faltering recovery of the general economy and the construction industry has been alleviated to an extent by:
- the popularity amongst homeowners of extending their homes because of the high price of moving up to a larger property, particularly in areas where prices are high, for example in London
- the increase in buy-to-let landlords creating a spike in renovations - although recent tax changes have made buy-to-let less attractive so there may be a reduction in this work in future
The market remains competitive and it's still very important for trades-people like roofers to run their businesses professionally and efficiently - and to offer customers excellent service and value for money.
Quality and standards
Some roofing businesses are no more than a 'man in a van', sometimes with little or no training and experience. 'Cowboys' often pay no tax or VAT and sometimes claim unemployment benefit too, enabling them to undercut legitimate businesses on price. Although people have become wiser about avoiding the worst cowboys, unfortunately the construction industry is still plagued by 'house of horrors' stories of poor workmanship and dishonest traders.
For its part, the construction industry has made considerable efforts in recent years to clean up its image and drive the cowboys out of business. Strong emphasis has been placed on education, both of householders and of people who choose to enter the building trades. Several schemes, some of them (such as the TrustMark initiative) government backed, have also been introduced with the aim of certifying bona fide tradesmen. However, participation in these schemes is purely voluntary and some members of the industry complain that the cowboys just ignore them or, worse, falsely claim to be members.
Revised Building Regulations introduced in 2010 with the aim of reducing energy use in buildings brought in a requirement for local authority building control to be notified when 50% or more of a building's roof area is refurbished. Under the regulations, insulation within the whole of the roof must then be brought up to current standards if necessary. (Building Regulations may apply to other aspects of roofing too - for example where the new roof cover material is substantially heavier then the old material.)
In the early 2010s the National Federation of Roofing Contractors launched the Competent Roofer scheme with government approval. Under the scheme, certified roofing contractors can sign off aspects of their work for Building Regulations, saving time and streamlining operations. You can find out more on the Competent Roofer website.
Health and safety
Increasingly stringent health and safety rules mean that roofers have to take greater care than ever to protect themselves, their employees if they have any, and anyone else at or near to the site where they are working. In practice, this often means using scaffolding where once a ladder might have done. While undeniably safer than ladders, using scaffolding on a job usually takes longer and always costs much more.
The health and safety regulations which relate specifically to the construction industry as a whole were updated in 2015.
Many of the basic roofing techniques and materials have remained more or less unchanged for hundreds of years. However, like all areas of the construction industry, new technology has affected the trade and offers contractors new ways of doing things using innovative materials. Some of the areas where technology has affected roofing materials and continues to evolve include under-felting and sarking materials, insulation, solar power generation, green or living roofs, artificial slates and proprietary flat roofing systems.
The introduction during the early 2010s of the 'feed-in tariff' for electricity produced using micro-generation technologies gave rise to a 'boom' in demand for roof-mounted solar panel installations. Some roofers were able to benefit from this demand by teaming up with specialist installers to carry out the associated roof modification and reinstatement work needed. Unfortunately the very generous introductory tariff for payments was cut soon afterwards, hitting demand for solar installations. Nevertheless, installation costs have become much more affordable and there's still a demand.
Keeping up to date with developments
Joining a trade association is an excellent way of keeping up to date with developments in your industry. Associations that represent the roofing industry in the UK include:
- the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC)
- the Confederation of Roofing Contractors (CORC)
- the Federation of Master Builders
- the Guild of Master Craftsmen
Subscribing to a trade journal is another excellent way of staying up to date. For example, Professional Builder covers topics of relevance to small and medium sized construction businesses, including roofing specialists. Roofing Today magazine is published specifically for the roofing industry.