Businesses dismayed by closure of timber advice service

Businesses and environmental campaigners want the government to reaffirm its commitment to sustainable timber procurement following its abandonment of the service advising Whitehall and its supply chain.

The Central Point of Expertise on Timber (CPET) was set up to advise departments and agencies on how to meet the government’s timber procurement policy (TPP), which aims to ensure that timber, palm oil and woodfuel products purchased with public money are from sustainable sources. CPET also advised businesses supplying the public sector and local authorities, which were encouraged to meet the policy voluntarily.

But the environment department (Defra) closed the service at the end of March. CPET’s final newsletter stated: ‘The use of the service has changed, moving away from high volume assistance of contractual issues and compliance with the TPP to low volume, complex queries. This demonstrates to us that CPET has achieved its goal and procurers do not need the same type of support as they did.’

It is replacing the five people employed by CPET with two-page guidance circulated to government departments and a page on the gov.uk website.

Julia Young, manager of the global forest and trade network at WWF, said CPET’s service was still needed. Research carried out last year by WWF found that compliance with the TPP was ‘patchy at best’, she said. The organisation has attended meetings with environment minister Rory Stewart on the issue, along with businesses in the government’s supply chain, including Lendlease, Kimberly-Clark, Pearson, Saint-Gobain and Willmott Dixon.

The latest report of the government’s progress against its own sustainability targets, published in December, revealed gaps in data for the procurement of paper, furniture and in construction. It also found that there is still some way to go for all departments to fully comply with government buying standards and the TPP in particular. 

WWF has asked the government to publicly reaffirm its commitment to the TPP; appoint a government department to be responsible for monitoring and updating guidance; create a mechanism for sharing best practice in procurement between departments and outline how it plans to meet the international targets it has signed up to, such as the New York declaration on deforestation, through collaboration with industry. 

‘We need clarification on how and why compliance will be measured,’ Young said. Since the government has targets on deforestation, it seemed ‘surprisingly directionless’ not to promote sustainable markets for timber, she said. 

‘We’re quite worried that we’ve put all this resource in to make progress, and then at the critical point, the resources have been taken away,’ she said. 

Martin Ballard, group environment manager at Willmott Dixon, said that the demise of CPET would  potentially lead to a loss of consistency and impartiality.

‘Willmott Dixon has always supported CPET and valued its strong independent voice, so we’re sorry to see CPET go as it has been a sound reference board.’

Ballard added that he believed the construction sector was now well-versed on timber procurement and compliance, but hoped that Defra’s guidance will be maintained as it will be important to other sectors.

Dave Hopkins, managing director of the Timber Trade Federation (TTF), said that it was a shame that CPET had been scrapped, but it was understandable given the scale of cuts the government is making. 

The timber policy and CPET had had a ‘huge and profound’ effect on sustainable timber, he said. ‘Once central government adopts a position like this you get big corporate entities adopting similar rules and that has a knock-on effect.’

‘It focused the minds of timber suppliers to make sure they put in place checks and balances throughout their supply chain,’ he said.

Paul King, managing director of sustainability, communications and marketing at Lendlease, agreed that the TTP had been hugely influential in the construction sector, which counts the government as its biggest client. Many people see the TPP as a world-leading policy, so having a resource in government to provide guidance is a good thing, he said.

‘Without it, how will the government ensure that the TPP is enforced properly?’ he said. 

The TTF was considering providing training on sustainable timber to public bodies later this year, Hopkins said.

Author: 

Catherine Early was deputy editor of the environmentalist from September 2014 to June 2017. She has covered energy and environmental issues for over 13 years, including for the ENDS Report, Planning magazine, Windpower Monthly, Business Voice, Climate Change Wealth, Fresh Produce Journal, Environment Business and Real Power magazines. She has also written for the Guardian and was a finalist in the 2009 Guardian international development journalism award.

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