TIMBER import volumes into the UK fell year-on-year in January 2024 amid the continued slowdown of the housing market, new industry analysis shows. 

Imports were around six per cent lower than January 2023 and down by around 45,000m3 in total, Timber Development UK (TDUK) research has revealed. 

This reduction was made up of very different levels of performance in the first month of the year. Softwood, hardwood and plywood imports were all lower than in January 2023, but particleboard, engineered wood, OSB and MDF products all saw imports increase slightly at the start of this year.

For softwoods, a 9 per cent reduction in volumes from Sweden was the largest contributor to the 9.6 per cent drop, with import values also 15 per cent lower in January 2024 than they were in January 2023. This fall was caused by the volume decline, coupled with a 5.6 per cent fall in the average price of a basket of softwood products, down from £256m3 to £241m3.

Hardwood imports experienced a 13.8 per cent fall, largely due to tropical hardwood imports being down by around 3,000m3. In contrast, volumes of temperate hardwoods increased by 2 per cent, with imports from the USA, Croatia and Romania accounting for most of this growth. Overall plywood imports were also down 6 per cent, though hardwood plywood volumes rose 36 per cent, mostly due to a near 18,000m3 increase from China.

Substantial increases in particleboard imports from Belgium, Portugal and Spain helped account for the sector’s 3.4 per cent growth, while OSB and MDF imports were up 6 per cent and 4.1 per cent, respectively. Finally, a 12.8 per cent growth in engineered wood product import volumes rounds out the varied January 2024 results.

TDUK head of technical and trade, Nick Boulton, said: “It’s always very difficult to accurately assess import and export trends at the start of a year, because with just one month’s data available, small changes from last year can result in significant shifts in performance. 

"A truer reflection of the sector’s product performance will be visible towards the end of Q1, but the 6 per cent reduction we’ve seen in January’s figures does confirm the greater stability in the market when compared to the high increases and decreases experienced from 2020 to the end of 2022.

“We also need to bear in mind the latest housing start data, which indicates that while housing starts and completions held up well in 2021 and 2022, data for the full 2023 year is likely to be substantially lower once it is made available. 

"Housing starts in England during Q4 2023, for example, were 51 per cent below Q4 2022, on the back of a similar 52 per cent reduction in Q3 2023 over Q3 2022. Given the importance of the newbuild housing sector to the timber industry, this is likely to indicate we can expect continuing challenges in the short term, and likely until after the coming General Election.

“However, despite the volatility of recent years and the subdued start to 2024, the longer-term trend of UK timber and panel product imports remains upward, and the government’s renewed focus on timber as a core construction material suggests that the future continues to look brighter.”

This month’s TDUK statistics also examine the impact of Brexit on timber supplies as we pass the latest anniversary since the UK left the European Union.

Although timber volumes have experienced steep rises and falls since Brexit, as well as being adversely affected by a pandemic, wars and a sluggish economy, a simple examination of import volumes both before and after the 31 January 2020 exit date reveals that little has changed in terms of timber import figures. 

For softwoods, the proportion of timber arriving from Europe stands at 99 per cent of the pre-Brexit figures, while for hardwoods, the percentage of trade with Europe has marginally increased from 66 per cent in 2020 to 67 per cent in 2023. For panel products, volumes imported from Europe have also changed by just 1%.