Living in interesting times

22 May 2017

For businesses in the British-grown timber industry, the key issue today is how to ensure continuity of wood supply beyond the peak of timber production from domestic forests, which is forecast for around 2030, writes UK Forest Products Association executive director David Sulman

Over the past two decades, the British-grown timber sector has made great progress; it has an enviable record of investment in world-class processing technology and this has enabled it to double its market share of the sawn softwood market to 40%. Today, UK sawn softwood production is some 3.5 million m3 per year.

Since devolution, forestry policy in England, Wales and Scotland has diverged markedly in emphasis. Brightest prospects are in Scotland, where successive governments have readily recognised the value of the forestry and forest products sector. The current government has recently increased its woodland creation target from 10,000 hectares a year to 15,000 hectares per year by 2025, which is welcomed, as are its plans to simplify and accelerate the of_ cial woodland creation approval process, which should facilitate new planting. It is also planning new arrangements for forestry, by embedding Forestry Commission Scotland within the government as a dedicated forestry department and a new land management agency. There are great expectations north of the Border.

In England, the ripples from the hiatus caused by the proposal to sell-off the public forest estate in 2010 are still being felt, although successive Governments have assured us all that the public forest estate in England will remain in public ownership.

A House of Commons select committee recently described the current forest and woodland grant schemes as being ‘not _ t for purpose’ and concluded they are acting as a barrier to increased woodland creation. It will be interesting to see how the government and DEFRA respond to the 32 conclusions and recommendations of the critical report.

In Wales, the public forest estate is managed by Natural Resources Wales, a body formed in 2013 from the amalgamation of Forestry Commission Wales, the Environment Agency Wales and the Countryside Council for Wales. Sadly, from a forestry perspective, this organisation has yet to prove itself and is in danger of squandering the legacy of Forestry Commission Wales. In summary, a mixed picture, with considerable scope for improvement in England and Wales, requiring government foresight and commitment in Westminster and Cardiff.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the UK remains one of the least forested countries in Europe. Forest cover is 13%, whereas the EU average is 38%. This should be a matter of concern to us all, given the valuable economic, social and environmental bene_ ts delivered by trees, woodlands, forests and the products derived from them.

As the oft-repeated saying goes, ‘We live in interesting times’. Quite apart from the everyday challenges facing the timber industry and the need for a renaissance of woodland creation in the UK, there is Brexit to contend with, (which has spawned a new industry based almost entirely on endless speculation, not to say wishful thinking).

We also face a general election and the prospect of another Scottish independence vote, all of which serve to increase uncertainty, which the sector could do well without.

Nevertheless, the domestic timber industry, which is characterised by its resilience, is upbeat and remains well placed to continue to meet the needs of the market