Martin Whitfield MP: If the PM is serious about solving the housing crisis, she must scrap Chequers & broker an improved deal that ensures timber can clear customs freely
Scottish Labour MP Martin Whitfield writes on the topic of his Westminster Hall debate today: 'Effect on the timber industry of the UK leaving the EU'.
Earlier this month, Theresa May reaffirmed to the Conservative Party Conference her ‘personal mission’ to fix our housing crisis. Yet in the same speech, she reiterated her commitment to her Chequers Plan, which would crash the UK out of the Customs Union and Single Market after we leave the EU. In fact, the Chequers plan will fundamentally fail to retain any customs arrangements with the European Union.
Without frictionless trade, I believe we face a clear challenge to build the number of homes the Prime Minister has committed to providing over this parliament.
This challenge exists because the supply of timber is essential to meeting housing demands. This sector, which contributes £10bn to the UK economy each year is still hugely reliant on trade with EU countries. Incredibly, 90% of the timber used to build homes in the UK is imported from across Europe.
Whilst we do grow and harvest timber in this country, we simply don’t have enough to fill the void that will be left after Brexit. Even if we had the space, the time it takes to grow the trees does not meet the immediate housebuilding demands we face.
Timber businesses across the country, including those in my own constituency of East Lothian, have strong relationships with several European countries and have built successful enterprises which employ over 200,000 people across the UK. This workforce is reliant on these imports.
Our current relationship is remarkably simple; timber entering the UK from the EU clears ports immediately with no need for customs checks to be carried out. These materials are instantly available to be used or sold. Leaving the EU threatens the simplicity and efficiency of this arrangement.
The realities of a poor deal or even no-deal after we leave is that these imports will be sitting in custom checks for weeks. A clear practical challenge which would face the industry is this; whilst the timber was being checked through customs, it could not be used or sold, and would need to be stored by the company. This is placing a significant logistical and financial burden on businesses, many of which are SMEs, many of which will not easily absorb these additional costs.
Housebuilding and timber go hand in hand. The sector is already stepping up the challenge with new factories, skills-training and solutions. Current output stands at around 60,000 homes per year. This could grow to over 100,000 by 2020 using existing capacity. We have a great deal to be positive about within this sector, but the government is putting this progress at risk.
As Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Timber Industries, I am going to make the case today that our housing needs are reliant on continued access to the Customs Union and Single Market. If the Prime Minister is serious about solving the housing crisis, she must start by scrapping Chequers and broker an improved deal that ensures timber can clear customs freely after we leave.
Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian and the Chair of the Timber Industries APPG