The Confederation of Timber Industries (CTI) took its timber message to the hub of UK political power at its inaugural Westminster Conference in November. Fresh from relaunching at Timber Expo in October, where it released new reports, the CTI stepped up its mission to lobby policy makers around the central themes of sustainability and growth, skills, productivity and housing.

It was also an opportunity for the CTI – the timber industry’s umbrella organisation which has key backing from the Timber Trade Federation, British Woodworking Federation, Structural Timber Association and Builders Merchants Federation – to start making its mark in the changing political and policy landscape with Brexit looming.

Among the politicians attending the conference were Rachael Maskell MP, the shadow secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Ian Paisley MP, who is chairman of the Timber Industries All Party Parliamentary Group and former Welsh Assembly shadow minster for the environment Antoinette Sandbach MP. They all shared the view that the timber industry had an “opportunity of a lifetime” to gets its message across.

Ian Paisley MP kicked off the positivity. “You have a great opportunity to speak to the policymakers. You need to use your collective strength of some of your cottage industries and big companies to speak together to get results.”

But he warned: “The opportunity of a lifetime must be taken during the lifetime of an opportunity.”

“I sense there is a buzz in the industry and I’m picking up on some of the things going on.” TTF MD David Hopkins set the scene on the theme of sustainability and growth. “Sustainability is a major benefit of the timber industry and brings benefits to the economy,” he said, adding that wood brought a “triple bottom line” boost – environmental, social and economic benefits.

Mr Hopkins explained to delegates that although tropical deforestation is seen as an issue, tropical timber only represents a small element of the UK timber trade, with UK and European sourced timber representing the bulk of purchasing. Additionally, agriculture rather than the timber trade was acknowledged as the primary cause of tropical forest deforestation.

The timber sector was leading the way on sustainability with elements like the EU Timber Regulation, the TTF’s Responsible Purchasing Policy and Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) timber licensing.

Timber, Mr Hopkins added, was renewable, a growing resource and represented a carbon negative process.

“This is something you cannot say for any other manufactured goods. It’s a powerful message and something we have not pushed hard enough and something we need to push to policy makers.”

Building more timber frame homes would, he argued, have a tangible effect on reducing carbon emissions.

Mr Hopkins shared evidence of how building a “Wood First” policy into the planning process was possible, citing a new West London school built with timber construction methods where the GLA relaxed requirements for PV cells because of the carbon emission savings through use of timber.

“Wood First”, launched by timber industry promotional campaign Wood for Good in 2012, had not succeeded as hoped, Mr Hopkins conceded, but had left an “incredible legacy”.

Mr Hopkins then unveiled the CTI manifesto, urging government to:

• Ensure the principles and practice of the EUTR are protected and enforced

• Maintain strict carbon targets at the heart of its Industrial Strategy

• Recognise and reward the timber trade’s crucial role in maintaining and expanding forest cover at home and abroad Politicians then joined with the timber sector representatives for a short debate, kicked off by Rachael Maskell MP who said the Labour Party had a very ambitious housebuilding policy and that climate change was a frightening reality.

“You need to make sure you have a louder voice in the policy sphere,” she said. The need for more new housing and rapid housebuilding methods meant the timber sector could “provide many of the answers”, she added.

Former Welsh Assembly member Antoinette Sandbach MP, a small timber grower herself, said of Brexit: “Tariffs are going to be key for your industry and you need to be communicating that loud and clear to the government and the ‘exiting the EU’ ministry.

“But I am not going to sit here and say everything is going to be rosy over Brexit,” she added. “As an industry you face real challenges.”

Ms Sandbach said she had spoken to Defra parliamentary under-secretary Thérése Coffey about using more wood in building and said the latter was going to speak to housing minister Gavin Barwell about it.

“There is a large amount going on in housebuilding and wood building has large potential, particularly modular housing. A new housing bill is coming forward [in January] and I think you need to get your message to Gavin Barwell.”

“From a trading perspective, the big concern over Brexit is how it’s going to effect the economy,” said Ken Walsh, MD of Danzer UK. “We have had a good 12 months and are relatively positive going forward but there is a nagging doubt about Brexit.”

Skills, Productivity and housing

The next session saw British Woodworking Federation CEO Ian McIlwee and Structural Timber Association CEO Andrew Carpenter give an overview of timber’s contribution to skills, productivity and housing.

Mr McIlwee said more than 200,000 people were employed in the timber and wood products sector. He highlighted the concern that it was an ageing workforce and skills gaps existed.

“People stay in our industry longer than in any other part of the economy,” he said. “They fall in love with our industry.” But getting young people interested in working with wood was a priority, with Mr McIlwee highlighting the BWF’s takeover of ProSkills UK’s Wood MakeIT! programme which encourages schoolchildren to make something out of wood.

“How do we create wealth in this economy?” asked Mr McIlwee. “We make stuff. Let’s work collectively as a sector to get kids working with wood.”

The BWF also delivers the “Wow I made that!” careers and apprenticeships hub. Mr McIlwee said the dropping of the mandatory requirement for design and technology on the curriculum in 2004 has led to a halving of the number of pupils participating in it.

“Frankly, we are getting our act together and finally we are joining together as a single voice to make sure we are heard,” said Mr McIlwee.

STA CEO Andrew Carpenter said the timber sector had stepped up its game. “When I came into the sector six years ago it was very fragmented and slightly adversarial,” he said.

Mr Carpenter quoted the advantages of timber construction methods – a 40% reduction in site waste and a 25% improvement in health and safety, while timber frame housing starts grew by 17% in 2015.

He cited the recent Farmer Review which says the government should initiate a stimulus to innovation in the housing sector by “promoting use of pre-manufactured solutions” through policy measure.

“The government today is going to remove every obstacle possible to building and we need to applaud that,” said Mr Carpenter. A subsequent panel discussion saw Vincent Stops, chairman of Hackney Council’s planning committee, praise timber construction.

“You need to promote timber-based building as I think there is a real chance you can change the world with timber,” he said. “But other competitor materials such as the concrete industry are very much better at doing it than you are and they are able to persuade people they are sustainable too. “It’s great the timber industries are coming together. You have not got a Wood First policy [at Hackney Council] because we were harangued by the concrete industry about it.”

Architect Anthony Thistleton, whose practice waughthistleton specialises in crosslaminated timber building, said modular housing was better quality than traditionallybuilt masonry homes, while Craig Liddell, CLT solutions manager at Legal & General Homes, said the build method created airtight structures and higher levels of quality control. An evening reception at the House of Commons saw more MPs mix with CTI representatives and guests, with Margaret Ritchie MP giving a presentation.