International environment minister Lord Goldsmith is chairing a cross-departmental group working with industry leaders to drive up the use of timber in construction. Here he answers Building’s questions about what he wants to achieve
Why is it important that we increase the use of timber in construction?
We’re currently consulting on a new ambition to increase canopy and woodland cover from 14.5% to 17.5% by 2050. In addition to numerous other benefits, that means more sustainable, home-grown timber.
Timber is a valuable building material and has the capacity both to lock up carbon in buildings and replace more carbon-intensive materials – while also generating jobs and investment in the sector. That is why we are providing investment and working with the construction sector to develop a policy roadmap for increased use of timber.
To put this into perspective, just 23% of new buildings in the UK use timber, while in Scotland, 75% of new houses are timber-framed, and in France, public procurement and a new sustainability law ensure that new public buildings are built from at least 50% timber or other natural materials. So, we know what is possible for England.
What has surprised you about the discussions of the timber in construction working group so far?
If we want to increase timber use in new buildings, we will need other government departments to step up. There are many issues involved, from building regulations to procurement policies, and the respective policies sit across government.
But there is real ambition across government – and businesses – and so I am optimistic that we will make progress.
Sadiq Khan has banned combustible materials from all residential blocks in schemes funded through his £3.46bn affordable homes programme. What is your opinion on this and what will you do in response?
The Grenfell Tower fire tragedy must never be allowed to happen again, and it’s absolutely right that safety and durability is a key consideration for affordable homes in London.
We do of course need to use timber safely and appropriately for both residential and non-residential buildings, and we can do so.
The government two years ago consulted on reducing the threshold for non-combustible external wall materials from 18m to 11m. What is happening to these plans?
In the wake of the appalling Grenfell tragedy, the government introduced a ban on using combustible materials, including timber, in and on the external walls of new high-rise blocks of flats more than 18m in height as well as hospitals, care premises and student accommodation.
There are clear opportunities for increased use of timber in low-rise buildings in a wide range of commercial and non-residential settings
We have consulted on proposals to extend the ban and my colleagues in the housing department are looking at the responses to that consultation and will respond soon.
At that point, we’ll review our plans for the timber policy roadmap to reflect any new guidance.
But what is clear is that there are clear opportunities for increased use of timber in low-rise buildings in a wide range of commercial and non-residential settings.
What in your view, is the biggest barrier to greater take up of timber in construction in the UK, and how can it be overcome?
We know that there are concerns around fire safety and durability, as well as supply and demand. The UK is the world’s second largest timber importer, so we need to boost our home-grown timber supply to ensure that demand is met sustainably.
There are huge opportunities including for jobs, skills, and apprenticeships because we are going to need to make sure that we have sufficient expertise to scale up.
Won’t timber always be seen as a fire risk by many? How do you convince the public that it isn’t in a post-Grenfell world?
We certainly need more research if we are to demonstrate timber’s safety in buildings, particularly in high rise buildings.
The timber in construction working group is a perfect opportunity to improve transparency between the sector and government, and to ensure that research is done.
What percentage of new-builds in England would you ideally like to see use timber and why?
We don’t have a specific target, but we absolutely want to see more. I want us to be as ambitious as possible.
How do we give lenders and insurers the confidence they need to back timber in construction?
We are looking at options to boost market confidence for lenders, insurers and warranty providers for timber in construction. We will look at all available levers – including regulations.
We are exploring what the opportunities and barriers there are to ensure engineered timber is used safely and is seen as viable by lenders
I know some lenders are nervous about composite timber products such as cross-laminated timber or glulam. We are exploring what the opportunities and barriers there are to ensure engineered timber is used safely and is seen as viable by lenders.
We are also looking at international insurance markets to see what lessons can be learnt there.
How will you ensure the conflict in Ukraine does not derail the government’s attempts to increase the use of timber in construction?
UK timber imports from Russia accounted for just 3.5% of the total in 2021. So UK dependency on Russian timber is low. It is anticipated the primary effects of trade restrictions for the UK will likely to be the broader impact on the global timber market.
Panel products and joinery products will likely face much of the initial impact as this conflict continues.
We are working with the Forestry Commission and the sector on how best to mitigate the effects of the situation in Ukraine, but we do not see this as a risk to our timber in construction ambitions.
In your view, are timber-frame developments as durable as brick? How do you counter the perception that the developments may not be as long-lasting?
Timber-frame developments in certain configurations can be as durable as brick, especially with new innovative timber products such as cross-laminated timber, or glue laminated timber.
We need to carry out additional testing and research to boost confidence in these products.
To what extent do you think the construction industry is on board with the idea of increasing the use of timber in construction? What incentives can government provide to change practices to use more timber?
The feedback that we have had from the working group is overwhelmingly positive. There has been unanimous agreement from members about the direction the group should take, and what it should focus on.
We know that an increase in demand for timber will be encouraged by strong market signals from the government – and that is why we have been clear that we will increase public demand for sustainably sourced timber through procurement policies.