As if the materials shortage was not posing problems enough, a lack of testing facilities means the industry may not have enough time to prepare for the introduction of the UKCA mark in less than a year 

You may not have heard of the UK Conformity Assessed (UKCA) mark, a new system for certifying products as safe to put on the UK market. If you have, you may well have dismissed it as an inconvenience which will soon be resolved.

With so many other problems confronting the industry, from rising energy costs to labour shortages, it might not seem like something which warrants immediate concern. But the UKCA mark, which comes into force on 1 January next year, is what chief executives of contractors across the country are now talking about with increasing alarm. It has the potential to be a serious headache for construction this year, and you will almost certainly be hearing a lot more about it in the months to come.

For those who are new to what is at stake, here is a quick summary.

Why do we need a UKCA mark?

The government is planning to replace the existing CE mark – used across Europe since 1985 to show that a product complies with health and safety standards – with a UK-only system, the UKCA mark. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said last week that the new system “enables the UK to take back control of our own product regulations”. If the language sounds familiar, that is because the policy forms part of the government’s post-Brexit drive for regulatory divergence from the EU.

What is the impact on product testing?

The problem is that products need to be retested in the UK to qualify for the UKCA mark, and there are not enough testing centres in this country to carry out all the tests needed before the deadline. For some products including glass, radiators and sealants, the testing capacity is either extremely limited, or does not exist at all. This was not a problem under CE rules because products could be tested at centres across Europe.

Andy Mitchell

Construction Leadership Council co-chair Andy Mitchell is due to meet construction minister Lee Rowley in the coming days

So it means that new UK centres will have to be set up pronto, and new staff recruited and trained to run them. The centres themselves also need to be certified, a process which can take up to a year.

Given that some products such as sealants can take nine months to a year to get fully tested and certified, we are almost certainly going to miss the deadline in just over 11 months’ time.

When does the new system come into force?

What makes matters worse is that the government and testing bodies have not yet started setting up new centres, and are still in the process of researching what testing capacity the UK currently has. This is even more astonishing considering that the deadline has already been extended by a year.

It was originally set for 1 January 2022 – just over four weeks ago – but was pushed back after industry groups told officials that more time was needed. Ministers have firmly insisted that the new date is the “final deadline” and have warned the industry that it needs to get ready for the coming changes.

What is the worst-case scenario if we miss the deadline?

But, if we get to 1 January 2023 and products have not been tested, large swathes of the construction industry would be plunged into crisis because the products needed on projects would be illegal on the UK market – and with the UK’s limited testing capacity, it could take months or years for these products to get the necessary certification.

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) warned ministers in November that this could halt the construction of 150,000 homes and cause “significant disruption” to the wider industry. Construction Products Association chief executive Peter Caplehorn, who co-chairs the CLC’s products availability working group, told Building last week that construction products could “drop off a cliff” this time next year if a solution has not been found.

What other risks are there?

This doomsday scenario will almost certainly not happen, however. The government could be forced to either extend the deadline again, allow products to be tested in European facilities or come up with some other transitional arrangement.

The risk is that if ministers do not get their act together soon and make their plan clear to the industry, the uncertainty could prompt worried contractors to start stockpiling products later this year – reviving the crisis of material shortages and supply chain issues which have been improving in recent months. It could also wreak havoc for architects trying to specify materials in their designs without knowing that they will soon be illegal because they have not been certified as safe to use.

While designers could caveat their specifications with “subject to UKCA approval” or something similar, they will be under pressure from clients to warrant products as safe and legal for their intended purpose. But, if the deadline passes and materials become unavailable, there could be widespread substitutions on projects, a problem which could be compounded by a limited number of products which have managed to get the new marking.

Are ministers talking to industry to find a solution?

You might have thought that resolving this would be an urgent priority for a government which uses “build back better” as its mission statement. Apparently not. It took three months for the CLC’s open letter in November, which called business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng and housing secretary Michael Gove to “rapidly meet” with the group to discuss a way forward, to receive a formal ministerial response.

Kwarteng only wrote to CLC co-chair Andy Mitchell after Building asked his department  why he had still not arranged a meeting. 

Politics appears to be hampering attempts at progress. The government seems reluctant to extend the deadline again as it would mean admitting that its post-Brexit drive for regulatory independence is stalling.

Caplehorn had been invited to meet former Brexit minister David Frost last autumn, but this was cancelled the day after it was arranged because Frost had resigned in protest at the government’s covid and Brexit policies. Instead, officials arranged for Caplehorn to meet Michael Ellis, the paymaster general – but that meeting has also been pushed back.

In better news, Mitchell is finally due to meet Lee Rowley, the construction minister, in the coming days. Following that meeting and Caplehorn’s meeting with Ellis – if it happens – the industry faces a crunch few weeks of discussions on how to avert serious disruption.

Last week the business department said: “Industry has had two years to adapt to these changes and it is important we don’t delay implementation any further.” The question is how far ministers are now willing to go to stick to that line.