This is certainly an opportunity for the industry to review itself. It is important to note that the timber industry is neither for nor against Brexit. What it seeks is clarity and a way of moving forward, both through increased home-grown production and through facilitating the import and export of wood, which will continue to be a requirement. Interestingly, in 2016 we were the second largest net importer of wood products; only China has a higher net import ratio. We rely heavily on wood and timber from across the EU and from across the world.
This debate takes place under exceptional circumstances. On 29 March, we will leave the European Union. We have had almost two years of negotiations with the EU about the terms of our withdrawal. Admittedly, we are not quite 95% of the way through this period, but the gap for the Prime Minister to secure a workable deal with Europe is closing. The protracted negotiation period has left several key industries, including timber, in the lurch—or out on a branch—over the impact of Brexit.
The sector contributes more than £10 billion a year to the UK economy and has a workforce of more than 200,000. There are profound questions about the nature of our withdrawal and its impact, particularly on the small and medium-sized businesses that make up a substantial part of the industry. As well as being of great national worth, the timber industry supports jobs in my constituency, which has BSW Timber, Windymains Timber and Alba Trees. In East Lothian, we take the acorn to the oak and then cut it up for the use of others.
I am here to express the industry’s concerns about the terms of our withdrawal from Europe and to make a personal case for continued membership of the customs union and the single market after we leave. The technicalities of our withdrawal can appear confusing, but the way in which timber currently enters the UK market from Europe is remarkably simple and has been developed through work across the EU—within the timber industry as much as by the Government. When timber enters the UK from the EU, it clears the ports immediately, with no need for customs checks to be carried out. The materials are then instantly available to be used or sold.
Leaving the customs union threatens the efficiency and simplicity of our current arrangements. The real-terms impact of a poor deal or no deal would mean timber arriving in Britain from Europe and sitting in customs checks for weeks on end. Indeed, the timber industry in the Republic of Ireland is so concerned about that possibility that it has written to its members with advice on it. This is the reality for companies importing timber from outwith the EU, particularly from North America, and it gives a worrying glimpse of the potential post-Brexit future that our timber industry faces. The time that it will take for businesses, most often small and medium-sized enterprises, to not only get hold of timber but store it before selling is of great concern.
I feel I might be wasting the Minister’s time if I asked for his support for a deal to keep us in both the customs union and the single market, so I will be a little more generous with my two questions. Will the Government commit to ensuring that, after we leave the EU, timber imports will continue to clear customs in the same manner? Will they assure the industry that there will be no up-front costs after we leave the EU, particularly for SMEs that trade with EU countries?
Let me turn to the house building strategy. The timber industry provides the frames and parts for virtually all our houses. In East Lothian, there is a commitment to 10,000 new homes in the near future, and the requirement for wood frames for roofing and joists will be exceptional. Our future relationship with the EU will go hand in hand with our current house building strategy, so I want to explore the impact of our withdrawal on the construction of new homes.
We have an unprecedented housing crisis across the UK, and nowhere more so than in Scotland. I accept that, in my constituency, the responsibility for increasing home ownership and eradicating homelessness rests with the Scottish Government, but the desire to achieve those ends is felt across the whole United Kingdom. At least 150,000 households are on waiting lists for homes in Scotland, while just a quarter of people under the age of 34 own their own home, which is down from just under half in 1999. This is a challenge that the Scottish Government are failing to meet.
These simple figures foreshadow an impending crisis in the supply of raw materials, notably timber, after we leave the EU. Some 60% of wood imports come from Europe, but for the timber that we need to manufacture homes, the figure stands at 90%. It is simply not feasible for the UK to become self-sufficient in timber production by next year or even by the end of any transition period that has been discussed. Of course, a move to greater self-sufficiency would be admirable, but there are questions about climate and about the quality of wood grown for purposes ranging from pulping to open joists in houses.