Import volumes ‘weaker’ but prices have stabilised, figures show

Timber imports saw weaker volumes during Q1 2024 than in Q1 2023, the latest Timber Development UK (TDUK) statistics show, and they also continue a much greater price stability for many timber and panel products in recent months.

Import volumes for Q1 were around 150,000m3 down on the previous year. While January and February’s data remained at similar levels, volumes fell back in March resulting in a 6.2% reduction. Nearly all product types experienced this fall in volume, with only hardwood plywood finishing higher – up by 1% in Q1 2024 compared with the same period in 2023.

Despite this most recent fall, changes in import volumes have largely stabilised since the multiple economic shocks caused by Brexit and Covid between 2020 and 2023, and the continuing armed conflict in Europe.

These weaker volumes for the start of the year confirm the general sentiment across the timber trade and wider construction industry, though it should be noted that figures for March 2024 are being compared against March 2023 – the second-best month for import volumes of 2023 – after which volumes dropped further in eight of the following nine months.

Anecdotal forecast data from the panels sector suggest volumes are expected to improve for the remainder of 2024, which may indicate 2024 ends as a stronger overall year than we saw in 2023.

Figures for March 2024 also show import prices for softwood, hardwood and plywood imports have largely stabilised in recent months, returning closer to pre-Covid and pre-Brexit levels. During 2023 average monthly imported softwood and hardwood price levels barely changed, though hardwood and softwood plywood prices continued to be more volatile. These, however, also seem to have stabilised significantly at the beginning of 2024.

TDUK Head of Technical and Trade, Nick Boulton, said: “The fall in timber import volumes during Q1 of 2024 are largely in line with the fall in overall construction output data, which was 1.4% down in Q1 2024 over Q1 2023 and 7.5% lower in March 2024 compared with March 2023. This can be attributed to poor UK economic performance and weaker construction outputs, which saw the lowest levels of housebuilding since 2014 (not including the Covid-affected year of 2020).

“New housebuilding output in the UK – a significant source of timber usage – has fallen in each month (compared to the same month of the previous year) from February 2023 through to March 2024, with outputs 15% lower compared with March 2023.

“Now, we must look ahead to the post-General Election economy and call on the upcoming government to prioritise housebuilding and construction. The construction industry represents around 7% of UK GDP and is often the engine that drives economic recovery across the UK as a whole, but we need investment from government to enable manufacturers and suppliers to plan ahead with any certainty. Timber can play a central role in the UK’s construction and net zero targets, and as an industry we will continue to lobby government to make the most of the opportunities that exist by building more with timber.”

TDUK members can sign in and read the full report on the TDUK website.