This claim is made in a survey carried out by Stone Federation Great Britain among its members, who completed an electronic questionnaire between late December 2010 and mid-February.

The suggestion is made in the survey that contracts are awarded on price, even if the lowest price seems unrealistic, and that not enough architects and authorities are insisting on the use of Stone Federation members with the skill and expertise they bring to a job.

Most of the companies responding to the survey were based in the South of England, followed by London and then the Midlands.

Turnover was greatest in London, followed by the South and then the North of England with the Midlands dropping to fourth place. There appears to have been a slight fall in turnover this year among some companies classified as “supply only” although the majority say they expect future business to be “steady”.

Companies who describe themselves as “supply and fix” expect little change in turnover across the next three years, with larger companies most optimistic of growth.

The majority of companies report spare capacity although there are mixed messages about the future with an equal number forecasting a future increase or decrease.

One bright spot is that 42 per cent of companies report increased enquiries with a further 39 per cent stating “no change”. Only 19 per cent reported a decrease in enquiries

This is tempered by the fact that 96 per cent report tender prices either decreasing or remaining constant.

Banks come under fire for their apparent lack of support for small to medium business. Members also complain that UK suppliers have to complete more paperwork than overseas companies – health and safety requirements being partly responsible – and claim this is “unfair competitive tendering.”

There is an increase in competitive behaviour and members cite the intervention into the market of general builders “without CSCS or heritage qualification” as being one reason for this.

They also point to an increasing number of small companies “with little or no previous track record” competing for masonry based projects.

Profit margins are under pressure although there is an increase in the availability of labour – with a “very marginal” increase in labour costs. There is also an increase in the supply of stone.

There is little change in the generic stones requested by clients and that situation is expected to remain unchanged in the future, although price is identified as the key reason why change could happen.

Thirty per cent of respondents claimed payment terms had worsened with 50 per cent anticipating that they would continue to get worse in future.

Typically each of the companies who responded to the questionnaire employed around 20 masonry craftsmen, supported by an average of six office and administration staff.

In addition companies reported an average of six self-employed craftsmen and four sub-contractors working for them. Most employed two or three apprentices.

The vast majority of companies (95 per cent) anticipated no change in personnel numbers next year. Those who might recruit had mixed views on whether it would be more or less difficult although the majority ( 58 per cent) felt there would be no change.

Companies were unanimous in claiming that not all the necessary skills are in place in any employment category, with some level of training being required for all new recruits.

Not surprisingly apprentices are seen as being in greatest need of further training although office and administration staff are also seen as needing additional training.

Word of mouth is the most popular way of recruiting new staff, followed by advertising vacancies in the local press. Employment agencies and job centres are not popular sources of new recruits.

In total 92 per cent of respondents saw sustainability and ethical sourcing as medium to high priority issues.

Stone Federation Chief Executive Jane Buxey said “This survey is a current snapshot of the industry and provides an indication of its likely future development.

“The results will be used by the Federation in any representations we make to Government on behalf of members.

“We hope to produce a similar report on an annual basis with regular updates in between. We urge all members to take part in order to provide as complete a picture as possible.