Construction industry executives across Europe have warned that “dangerous” price rises and shortages of many building materials risk undermining the EU’s flagship €800bn economic stimulus programme.
The EU construction sector generates almost 10 per cent of the bloc’s economic output and vast infrastructure projects make up a sizeable proportion of Brussels’ recovery fund, which will distribute grants and loans to rebuild member states’ economies after the Covid-19 pandemic.
But prices of construction materials from steel and wood to concrete and copper have begun to rise sharply in recent weeks as the economic rebound both in Europe and elsewhere — including the US and China — triggers a building boom.
According to the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), bitumen prices have risen 15 per cent in only three months, cement prices were up 10 per cent in a single month and wood prices were up over 20 per cent.
Public infrastructure projects usually impose penalties on builders for delays, while contractors often have to bear the cost of unexpected price increases.
Domenico Campogrande, director-general of FIEC, warned that the price rises and extra delays risked diluting the impact of the EU funds.
“The danger is that we have this big EU recovery plan but if 30 to 40 per cent of these funds are absorbed in extra financial instruments to cover the higher prices, it would be a real nonsense as it won’t go into the real economy,” he said.
In a recent letter to the European Commission, the FIEC expressed “alarm” at the price rises and shortages of materials, including a more than doubling of the Italian price of steel bars used to make reinforced concrete in four months to March.
“This phenomenon is jeopardising the construction sector’s contribution to economic recovery and is threatening the potential impact of European recovery programmes,” it said.
In Italy — the biggest beneficiary of the stimulus cash from Brussels — the government is planning to spend more than €100bn of its EU funding on building new infrastructure over the next five years. But the construction sector has warned officials that it will struggle to rise to the challenge without major reforms.
“We are facing shortages of many basic materials for construction and this is very dangerous as Italy is being hit harder than the rest of Europe,” said Flavio Monosilio, research director at ANCE, the association of Italian construction companies. “This crisis is at the heart of the new EU recovery plan.”
Construction executives blame several factors for the bottlenecks, including the sharp rebound in demand which has outstripped the supply of materials in many countries, as well as pandemic-related disruption to supply chains and continued trade tensions.
Some materials have been hit by additional problems such as a bark beetle infestation that has hit wood production, and delays in the redistribution of unused steel.
Thomas Birtel, chief executive of Austrian construction group Strabag, said price rises had “increased tremendously in the last two weeks” and the company had to “report delays on individual construction sites because the material is simply no longer available”.
Strabag, which built the Copenhagen Metro in Denmark and the Limerick Tunnel in Ireland, operates its own concrete and asphalt plants, but Birtel said: “Construction is a small-scale business and it is not even possible to control the supply chains for all building materials.”
In Germany, 44 per cent of construction companies surveyed by the Ifo Institute in May reported problems procuring materials on time, up from less than 6 per cent in March.
“We haven’t seen a bottleneck like this since 1991,” said Felix Leiss at Ifo. “This evidently caused construction activity to slow down in April, at least temporarily.” Production in the German construction industry fell 4.3 per cent in April from the previous month, despite companies in the sector reporting a record order backlog of €62bn in March.
“Many producers are unable to supply the materials before the end of the year and that’s a real problem,” said Stephan Rabe at the German construction industry association. “A lot of money is going into public and private sector construction projects in the US and China and that is sucking up a lot of materials. Wood is being produced in Germany and exported to the US, so it is in short supply here.”
Some German politicians have called on Berlin to seek temporary EU export restrictions on wood and other materials.
As the US government prepares to launch a $1.7tn infrastructure programme and the global economic rebound is expected to gain pace, the pressures are expected to remain high in the coming months.
“It will take time to go back to normal — at least the end of the year,” said Campogrande.
Some countries, such as France and Germany, have responded by easing the rules on some public sector construction contracts, waiving fees for delays and compensating contractors for unforeseen price rises.
Monosilio said Rome was yet to offer any relief to the sector, which has been battered by a decade-long fall in public infrastructure investment, a lack of funding from banks and long delays in project approvals and payments.
Italy’s prime minister Mario Draghi has said the “destiny of the country” depends on the success of a €248bn package of investments and reforms mostly funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Plan. It includes investment in high-speed train lines, renewable energy facilities, smart electricity grids and energy efficient buildings.
EU states have a poor record in distributing funds; in the six years to 2020, they on average only spent just over half the money they were allocated by Brussels.
Without reforms to address the Italian construction sector’s problems, Monosilio said similar problems could bedevil the EU’s recovery spending efforts.
“The Draghi government absolutely wants to improve the situation,” he said. “[But] it is a sword of Damocles hanging over the whole European project.”