Improved housing market statistics have given a glimmer of hope of better business prospects in 2010, but a poll by TTJ reveals timber traders still divided about how the market will pan out.

Increasing property affordability for first-time buyers (Halifax report), a 45% rise in NHBC new house registrations in the three months to November and the highest level of confidence among finance chiefs at the UK’s largest companies (Deloitte report) are among positive signs at the start of the year.

“I think everyone is hoping for a better 12 months than the last two years,” said Nick Kershaw, MD of North Yorkshire Timber.

“Most businesses have done some restructuring and refinancing and are now better placed to deal with market conditions. I feel it is going to be a brighter outlook.”

He cited some concerns over public spending cuts, but thought general consumer confidence was increasing.

Woodworking machinery manufacturers Homag UK and SCM Group UK have also noticed increased investment and confidence among customers.

“We saw a positive end to 2009, with orders for machines across the price spectrum and we’ve got strong enquiries for 2010,” said Simon Brooks, Homag UK sales and marketing director, adding that companies were deciding they have to invest to “proceed into the upturn”.

SCM Group UK managing director Gabriele de Col said its sales increase was mainly in panel machinery, but solid wood business in the south had also improved in recent months.

“These are just a few sprouts, but we like the look of them and hope they gain momentum through 2010,” he said.

BSW Timber remains optimistic about prospects for increased home-grown timber market penetration, with sales and marketing director Alan Wheat, citing the low pound and lower import levels continuing to benefit the sector. “We’re seeing some good signs in demand with local and national builders in the private housing market,” he said.

He predicted a lull in the market prior to an election, with high taxes to follow.

Mark Plews, managing director of leading agency UCM Timber, said he was not convinced that stock market gains would benefit the construction industry and predicted a “very difficult year”, highlighting election uncertainty and the prospect of tax rises and increasing interest rates. He thought the economy mirrored the situation in 1978/79 and that a new Conservative government may produce an emergency budget which could hurt the economy.

“I hope it won’t be, but I’m planning for 2010 to be as low as 2009 in terms of activity.”

Tim Waters, managing director of Mid Sussex Timber, predicted the economy would “bump along the bottom” and business would need to ride out the storm.

Travis Perkins timber buying manager Martin Cunliffe said supply would remain tight over coming months, while another major merchant said 2010 prospects “probably lie somewhere in the poorer part of the middle ground”.

Osmose UK general manager Gordon Ewbank said its outdoor wood treatments business was buoyant, though construction related products had been affected by the housing downturn.

“There is an increasingly consistent message from the building market that we will see a pick up in the second quarter – but there are uncertainties to take into account, including the election,” he said. “I think that the World Cup could also have an impact. Coming straight after the election it could lead to construction taking its eye off the ball and further delay a pick up, with building workers preferring to watch the football than get out on site.

“Overall, I think we’re entering the most uncertain decade I’ve experienced in my career. ”