Chris Allwood, Managing Director of Welsh Slate Ltd, discusses some challenges for the UK slate industry.

Does anyone else out there feel that today’s focus on Modern Methods of Construction and even modern methods of education are the biggest challenges facing our UK slate industry?

I for one believe that individual sectors of the construction industry, such as small-format roofing and slate roofing in particular, have their own individual needs but these are often at odds with the drive for modernity in construction.

A classic example of this could be the current skills shortage which some might say has partly been brought about by the recent drive in many areas of the construction industry to “de-skill” by moving towards off-site larger-module construction processes.

While all this is with the laudable aim of reducing project and delivery lead times, carbon footprints and costs (the dreaded value engineering!), I am concerned it might be at the expense of the slate roofing process which may not remain viable if it is not given sufficient consideration.

The future of small-element roofing seems to be dependent on a relatively small number of high-quality roofers who have traditionally been dependant on our heritage building stock which continues to demand particular slating expertise but have more recently become increasingly so on generic maintenance and refurbishment.

These people are striving to show that high-quality workmanship, craftsmanship even, is not a lost art and deserves its place in the construction agenda as much as any other. Certainly this seems to be getting through to an increasing number of risk-aware specifiers.

These architects and planners appreciate a roofing material that is Kitemarked and lasts, and is warrantied to last, two to three times as long as more modern materials (and also poor-quality slate), and as a bonus continues to look good throughout its 100-year-old plus life, as evidenced by St Asaph Cathedral in Denbighshire where the Welsh Slates are still performing after 300 years.

Fixing small-format roof slates is a relatively time-consuming process which is inconsistent with the drive for better value in the supply chain – faster build speeds, economies of scale, reducing manual handling, increasing numbers of tight sites with restricted access and so on.

Couple these Modern Methods of Construction with modern methods of education and it’s easy to see why I believe the slate industry is facing perhaps unprecedented challenges.

While the focus on offering university places to the majority of school leavers is as laudable as some of the aims of the MMC ethos, as a parent I feel it puts pressure on young people who might otherwise have gone into a “trade” straight from school but are now opting for an exam pass because that is what they are led to believe is the real test of a skill.

Then when they graduate but find the competition for the jobs their degree helped aspire them to is too great because there are too few due to the economic climate, they are perhaps deterred from reverting to a trade because of the >£30,000 debt they have accrued.

I believe this has contributed to the shortage of apprentices and no amount of support from slate manufacturers like us for the UK’s construction-orientated colleges in terms of technical expertise and materials can really help with the issue of initial recruitment. That requires a shift in strategy at the highest level.

Certainly, it can take up to four years to learn how to split Welsh Slate. Many of our splitters’ fathers, grandfathers and even great-grandfathers worked in our quarry. Not surprisingly, there is a huge amount of pride in every slate produced – more than 120,000 every week from our Penrhyn and Cwt-y-Bugail quarries.

Some of these slates meet the MMC trend for large-module building elements themselves as it was not uncommon for Welsh Slate to produce random slates in lengths up to 52” (over 1.3m long). Known as the Queens Rag and ranging from 25” upwards, they can still be produced today.

Lack of home-grown apprentices apart, the UK slate industry is also losing more experienced roofers to the former Colonies where buildings dated 1850 are required by the State Heritage Boards for any repairs or replacements to be as near as possible to the original building materials. Out there, the expertise of our slate roofing craftsmen is even more lauded than here.

In Australia for example, Welsh Slate has recently been reinstated on the Supreme Court in Sydney due to the failure of the 30-year-old Spanish slate. A failure of value-engineering too!