Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty? What is the Future for Britain’s Glass and Glazing Industry?
Despite the current challenges, President of the Glass and Glazing Federation, Tony Smith, is optimistic about the future of the industry | Credit: Alamy
As the nation opens up after the pandemic, Tony Smith, newly elected President of the Glass and Glazing Federation (GGF), sat down with The House, to talk about the critical role that his industry can play in Building Back Better, and helping the nation meet its targets around net zero.
Windows and doors are a vital part of everyday life. They keep cold air out in the winter, and open up to let cooler air in during the summer. Throughout the last year of lockdown, it has been through our windows in particular that most of us have had the most experience of the real world as opposed to the virtual world.
However, despite their critical importance in the everyday lives of millions of people, in public policy discussions, windows and doors seldom feature.
One man who is on a mission to change that is Tony Smith, President of the GGF, the body that represents companies that manufacture, supply or install glass and glazing products in the UK. It is an enormously diverse sector to speak on behalf of, ranging from multimillion pound listed companies to local installers working as sole traders in every town and city across the UK.
The sheer scale and diversity of the sector is something that Smith reflects on, as he begins by describing the way in which COVID has impacted the sector. “If you look at the numbers, it dropped off a cliff,” he tells The House. “Somewhere, between £500m-£600m. That was the cost to our industry.”
For larger companies, adopting new working practices to try and maintain business continuity was key. For small local businesses, however, dealing with the impact of a year of lockdowns usually meant temporarily shutting up shop and accepting government support.
Although this has made the last 12 months enormously challenging, Smith also believes that the crisis has also demonstrated something important. “This is a resilient industry”, he says. “One that is prepared to adapt and be creative.”
It is this positive view, about the sector's flexibility and capability to evolve and innovate, which fuels Smith’s key ambitions for the UK’s glass and glazing industry as the UK begins to Build Back Better. In particular, he believes that the scale and reach of the industry means that it must now be viewed as a key partner by a government which will need all of the help it can get to deliver a very ambitious set of targets around reducing carbon emissions.
“There are over 100 million windows and an estimated 30 million doors that need upgrading in the UK,” he reminds us. “This is a massive challenge for industry”.
If the UK is to meet it’s 2050 net zero target, it is a challenge that certainly needs to be met. Expert estimates are, that up to 24% of energy loss is through poor quality windows. This fact alone should propel a major upgrade of the UK’s windows and doors to the top of the government’s to-do list.
The volume we deliver, and the efficiency we provide, is something government needs. We can help.
The benefits that such an approach would bring are clear. Smith paints a picture of a virtuous circle, – government support and investment which creates sustainable long-term jobs for young people, lowers energy bills for consumers, reduces the amount of energy that we use as a nation, and makes homes quieter, warmer, and healthier.
Smith is clear that he is speaking on behalf of a sector that stands ready to act, a willing partner that can help the UK deliver on its ambitious net zero goals. Key to making this happen, he argues, will be a partnership approach between the sector and government. “My main hope is that government develops greater engagement with us,” he says. “The volume we deliver, and the efficiency we provide, is something government needs. We can help.”
Underpinning Smith’s words it is easy to detect a sense of frustration that, in the past, the world of glass and glazing has often been overlooked when it comes to wider debates about the construction sector. He points to examples of previous green initiatives which were often focused on issues like replacing boilers or adding insulation. By way of contrast, upgrading windows was often seen as something which consumers themselves would simply deliver without incentives or encouragement from government.
Although this approach may have worked in the past, as we try to encourage better and potentially more expensive technologies such as heat-reflective glass, Smith believes that more government support for consumers may be needed to drive adoption and change.
He also believes that government has a key role to play in addressing the current construction skills gap. “Our members are crying out for workers”, Smith tells The House, calling for more targeted skills support to ensure that there is a workforce in place to deliver the national windows and doors upgrade required.
However, despite all of the challenges, for Smith the future of the glass and glazing industry is a bright one. When he speaks, it is with the confidence of a man who represents a sector with enormous reach into both businesses and consumers. It is also a sector which, Smith knows, can potentially play a critical role in delivering net zero, helping to meet the most pressing challenge of our generation.