Darren McCarthy,
Purchasing director Brooks Bros

Election bounce optimism

Brexit and the election have been clouds hanging over the trade. They’ve created uncertainty and caution, with business putting projects and investment on hold.

The last six months in particular have been quite subdued but now those clouds have cleared it has to be good news.

In fact, I spoke to a surveyor recently who had nine jobs commissioned on the back of the election.

We can’t throw caution to the wind as we still don’t know exactly what form Brexit will take.

But I remain optimistic we’ll see a bit of an election bounce, then over a longer period, a return to something more like normality.

On Brexit, it makes sense for both sides to come to a mutually acceptable settlement, which puts the minimum of barriers in the way of trade and on the EUTR/UKTR and FLEGT I think we’ll see alignment between the UK and EU.

If we do have to put imports from the EU through UKTR due diligence we’ll cope. If we can do it with African supply chains, I’m sure we’ll be able to handle it with European ones.

I think some of our EU suppliers are more concerned than we are, but we’re assuring them we’re committed to making it business as usual.

Nigel Buckley-Ryan,
UK sales director Södra

Long term commitments will pay

We now have some certainty and UK business can to a degree start to plan for life after Brexit.

Short term, it’s likely to cause some customs clearance delays, so merchants will need to ensure their timber importer has enough landed stockholding, storage and the infrastructure to maintain continuous supply. As a vertically integrated business, we’re well placed to cope.

Södra is, of course, committed to its trade with the UK, our largest export market for sawn timber at the end of 2018. We are now well and truly embedded into the UK timber industry and will remain so.

In terms of government plans for housebuilding, we believe the benefits of timber and timber construction – sustainability, speed of construction, better, more flexible specification – are simply unignorable. Plus, the government won’t be able to deliver that amount of new homes without looking beyond bricks and mortar solutions.

2020 will see a price recovery of sorts and the potential for some timber shortage and supply delays. Those suppliers with a proven track-record of sustainable timber supply, end-to-end supply chain control and a commitment to long-term customer partnerships will be the ones that win out.

Tony Miles,
Chief Executive Archwood

Government must deliver

It’s been a roller coaster year for the timber industry – and probably one many would rather forget.

With the election we, finally, have some understanding of where we’re going, but the government still has to deliver on its promises. It would be disappointing if we don’t get a trade deal with the EU.

At Archwood we’re well-placed going into 2020, but that’s largely because we’ve secured some major contracts. The underlying numbers for the timber trade are flat at best.

We can’t see much change in the first six months, but after that, hopefully, with greater stability, we should see some return of market positivity, with consumers more willing to invest in that new kitchen or staircase. If we don’t, I think we could see some consolidation in the timber sector.

I see the EUTR and FLEGT initiatives rolling through post-Brexit. The UK was an advocate of both and, given increased awareness and concern around climate change arising from the campaigning of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion and media coverage of forest fires, it’s even more critical we move forward on environmental issues.

Market prospects are also dependent on regulatory outcomes from the Hackitt Review and how the industry responds to them.

Keith Fryer, founding shareholder
Fort Builders Merchant

Enough work for all

I know! What am I doing, starting all over again with our new company Fort Builders Merchant in the midst of peak economic uncertainty? I ask myself that too! But it was irresistible – working with two younger guys, building a new venture that’s based on latest IT systems is extremely exciting.

When’s the right time to start a company? Quite simply, you need a model that’s robust enough to get through thick and thin, so it’s probably better to start when things are uncertain. Time will prove if ours is, or not!

It also helps to have fantastic trade support – we certainly haven’t seen any from the banks, which seem incredibly risk averse.

Will 2020 be good? As I write, Middle East tensions have increased, but China and the US are closer to a deal.

There’s always something to frighten us. But I reckon there’ll be enough work out there to keep us going. Let’s focus on things we can deal with and do the best we can. In short, it’s great to be back!

David Hopkins, managing director
Timber Trade Federation

Deal or no deal still in balance

We now have a government with a majority, so can hopefully it can govern. On economic policy, let’s trust the Conservatives’ victory will inspire them to do things differently and be more proactive.

For the timber industry the main impact will be in housebuilding, where the government’s record has been mixed. Latest 2020 forecasts for the sector are flat, but this can change quickly.

Working with partners in the CTI, we’ve produced our All Party Parliamentary Group report on “How the Timber Industries can Help Solve the Housing crisis” to lobby central and local government for greater use of timber in construction. With government promises for one million new homes in five years, it makes sense from so many angles: environmentally, in speed and quality of build and applicability of timber for offsite construction.

On the impact of Brexit, it depends on the deal we do or don’t negotiate. Hopefully, with a larger majority, the government will not be beholden to hard Brexit extremists and can adopt a sensible long-term approach to our relationship with the EU customs union and single market regulatory structures. There will undoubtedly be changes in how goods move across borders, but providing demand holds up, I’m sure importers will stomach the extra paperwork.

The TTF has a strong programme of education and promotion for members for 2020, and for lobbying local councils. We aim to work on this with the STA and BWF to communicate a consistent timber message.

Andrew Carpenter, chief executive
Structural Timber Association

Maximise climate change benefits

With the political stalemate and economic blockage caused by the Brexit debate behind us, we can now move forward and focus on important issues, such as climate change. Structural timber systems will come to the fore in reducing carbon emissions and our industry must maximise this opportunity.

On the government’s pledge of a million homes in five years, the devil will be in the detail, but one thing is clear – build quality must be key. STA Assure accredited manufacturing members can not only provide this, but also have capacity to double the current annual output of 50,000 units.

We are promoting members’ offsite capabilities and have the government’s modern methods of construction champion Mark Farmer set to visit a couple of their facilities.

We’re stressing too that offsite is not exclusively about volumetric manufacture, but also innovative panelised timber frame systems, which can increase production rapidly.

We also fully endorse the findings of the Hackitt ‘Building a Safer Future’ report. To meet government targets for housing safety, sustainability and carbon reduction, construction must have access to a portfolio of building products, materials and systems that cover every compliance requirement.

As we enter a new decade, safety and quality will be the key focus of the STA’s 2020 agenda and in a just over a month, we will be launching some pioneering research which will provide valuable guidance for structural timber construction.

Ian Attwood, managing director
International Plywood Group

Turnaround in Q2 predicted

The last six months’ trading conditions aren’t really sustainable, with prices and margins dropping considerably and many companies simply focused on turning products into cash. But now we’ve got a government with a decent majority we should see decisions being made and more certainty returning.

Business is still quite flat and the first quarter looks like remaining tough, but in quarters two and three, as confidence grows, we should start to see a turnaround.

With Chinese plywood output curtailed by new environmental controls, plus the upcoming Chinese New Year, supply is set to tighten and, with the added pressure of rising freight rates, prices should firm.

Of course, the deal is yet to be clarified, but hopefully the government is also now in a position to secure a softer Brexit, which would suit the timber trade best, as it should be less disruptive. In the lead up, I also don’t think we’ll get companies stock building like we did before the March Brexit deadline last year – needlessly as it turned out.

Hardwood plywood apart there seems to be plenty of availability, in softwood plywood, OSB, MDF and chipboard, which has caused weakening prices in 2019.

We’ve seen regional variation in trade in the last year. Demand has been reasonably steady in Scotland and the north-east, down a few per cent in the north-west, Midlands and south-west, but around 10% lower in London and the south-east. However, as 2020 progresses we should see an upturn in London and the south-east particularly, which will be a real catalyst for trade.