Challenging times call for cohesive action

27 August 2018

Faced with accelerating change on multiple fronts, the forestry and timber supply chain needs to take responsibility for its own future”and get even more involved in the decision making processes shaping its destiny, writes Confor chief executive Stuart Goodall

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, said “change is the only constant in life”. Very profound and far sighted.

Though he also said “the way up and the way down are one and the same”, without commenting on how the sensation may differ!

Anticipating, embracing, and planning for change is crucial for successful businesses, and it’s something we ascribe to in Confor as we’re faced with revolving doors of politicians and officials and, as Harold MacMillan memorably said “events, dear boy, events”.

This year has seen prices for UK timber spike sharply as strong demand from sawmills and the panel board sector has met stubborn supply, laced with a growing appetite for wood from the renewable energy sector.

This perfect storm wasn’t anticipated and attempts to get to the root cause have highlighted that the UK forestry and timber sector lacks timely, detailed, credible market data – something that Confor is looking to tackle. It is also prompting efforts to stimulate more wood supply in the immediate term, with some success.

With tree rotations of 35-40 years, providing feedstock for the UK timber industry requires a focus on both the immediate and the longer term, and that means driving forest expansion above current levels.

This has been an (unnecessarily) slow and difficult process, which has required getting successive ministers on board and prepared to put the sustained pressure on officials to deliver what is still an unpopular exercise with many local communities and some environmental groups – changing land use.

Scotland leads the way with cabinet secretary Fergus Ewing putting boosters on an improved grant scheme and approvals process that will hopefully deliver the Scottish government’s target of 6,000ha of commercial planting this winter, as part of an anticipated 10,000ha planting programme.

At Holyrood, Confor has secured cross-party support for forestry and this has helped in securing agreement to drive planting up even further, to a target of 15,000ha a year by 2025.

Brexit brings uncertainty and, while I’m one of an apparently small number of people who believes there will be a deal – don’t the biggest negotiations normally go to the wire? – there are some things we can predict, deal or no deal. Leaving the EU removes the guarantee to farmers that they’ll receive public money every year, just because they farm the land. Some will look to plant trees.

Devolution is bringing the final carving up of the Forestry Commission and, although cross-border agreements are being put in place on research funding, tree health and statistics, these agreements will always be subject to each country being prepared to stay round the table. Industry cannot afford to leave it to others and hope everything will be okay.

Faced with this constant, seemingly increasing, pace of change it’s timely that Confor and the UK Forest Products Association have announced a proposal to merge and create a stronger entity to support members and fight for their interests.

Old certainties are disappearing and new opportunities arising. The industry has reached adulthood and now needs to take more responsibility for its own future.

Stuart Goodall