FORMER members of the UK Wood Processors Association (UKWPA), instrumental in the development of wood processing in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s, attended a reunion in Oswestry on 17 May. 

The UKWPA was founded in 1988 to represent large-scale wood processors in the UK. A decade later, in 1998, UKWPA was absorbed into the UK Forest Products Association (UKFPA) and its operation has influenced UK forestry and wood processing up to the present day. At the reunion, Alan Bloomfield, who was the association’s inaugural chairman, serving from 1988–90, presented the following paper, drawn from his memories of the time.

Setting the scene – back to the ’80s 

A spate of wood processing closures occurred in the early 1980s, including St Anne’s Board Mill at Bristol, Flakeboard at Monmouth and the four Weyroc particleboard mills at Thetford, Mark’s Tey, Weybridge and Annan. Importantly, in 1980, major roundwood pulp mills closed at Bowaters Ellesmere Port, Bowaters Sittingbourne and Wiggins Teape at Fort William, the latter also utilising softwood sawmill chips. The Scotboard particleboard mill at Irvine closed in 1981. Following these closures, export pulpwood facilities were set up and operated in many UK ports, enabling a continued market for Forestry Commission and private sector-grown coniferous roundwood, together with sawmill chips from a number of major sawmills. The major market was Scandinavian pulp mills.
During the mid-1980s, the National Coal Board (NCB) market, in decline for some time, virtually ceased for round and split pit props and sawn timber. At the time, another useful market existed for the manufacture of wood wool, which utilised debarked coniferous roundwood. This was an important market for light, windblown trees – some the result of the major 1968 windblow.

However, a period of major investment in wood processing was taking place. Having purchased the former Scotboard particleboard factory at Irvine in Ayrshire, Caberboard recommenced production there in 1982, and produced its first MDF at its Cowie plant, near Stirling, in 1982, followed by a second line in 1986. Particleboard production was also expanded at Cowie. In North Scotland, Highland Forest Products started production of Oriented Strand Board (OSB) in 1985 at Morayhill, Inverness. 

Weyroc substantially increased particleboard production at Hexham, with major investment in a new particleboard production line. Kronospan continued to invest at Chirk in north Wales, with additional particleboard production lines and a new MDF production line. Shotton Paper Company, owned by the Finnish Kymmene Corporation, made a major investment in a new ‘greenfield’ newsprint mill at Shotton, Deeside in 1985, which required large quantities of spruce wood fibre, in the form of small-diameter roundwood and sawmill chips. This was a major benefit to the public and private sector timber growers, as well as the sawmilling industry. Cement-bonded particleboard production was started by Pyroc in Wales, on a relatively small scale at this time.

During this period, UK softwood sawmilling expanded substantially. Production from UK forests (both sawlogs and small roundwood) increased, as plantings of the ’50s and ’60s came into production. Against this background of major investment in UK wood processing, pressure was brought to bear by the UK wood processors. Wood supplies were often switched from mill to mill at short notice, based on who would pay the most. Wood was being transported long distances, as buyers sought to meet the increased demand. Recycled wood fibre use was embryonic – with minimal amounts being used. Something had to be done!

A meeting with Scandinavian wood buyers demonstrated how co-operation between wood-using companies could pay dividends within a legal trading framework. Jim Sutton, Alan Bloomfield and others subsequently developed an informal group to represent the interests of the major UK wood processors. In the latter half of the 1980s, informal meetings between representatives of the UK wood processing sector were held, where topics including wood supply and demand were discussed. These continued, until it was clear that there was a need to formalise the group, enabling lobbying to take place on issues of mutual interest, both national and international.

A rough timeline of events ran as follows: 1 June 1988 saw the inaugural meeting of UKWPA take place at the Caledonian Paper Co offices in St James Square, London, followed by the AGM and annual dinner held at Iggesund Paperboard at Workington in November 1988, and further meetings including one at Shotton Paper Co in February 1989 and at Kronospan, Chirk in May 1989.
UKWPA continued to function throughout the 1990s. In 1998, as part of the move to rationalise forest industry trade associations, discussions took place resulting in the interests of UKWPA being transferred to a sub-committee of the UK Forest Products Association. The inaugural meeting of the UKFPA wood processors sub-committee was held in Stirling on 26 November 1998.

Most of these wood processing investments undertaken in the 1980s and 1990s are still in production, although some changes in operational requirements have been seen – for example, Shotton Paper Company’s move from wood fibre use to recycled paper input. The impact of recycled wood fibre was yet to take effect and the use of wood fibre for energy purposes was in its infancy. 
The 1980s were both exciting and rewarding and play their part in the history of the development of the internationally competitive forestry and wood processing industry in the UK that we know today.