A voice for the UK industry

8 February 2019


Alastair Kerr is Director General of the UK’s Wood Panel Industries Federation, a body which represents wood panel manufacturers in the UK and Ireland. Mike Botting spoke to him about his role and that of the Federation he heads

Q Please tells us about the history of the WPIF.

A. WPIF was incorporated in December 1995. Its creation coincided with changes in the panel market where dry process boards, in particular MDF, were taking market share from older generation, and predominantly imported, wet process products. The UK and Irish chipboard [particleboard], MDF and OSB manufacturers wanted a Federation that focused on their needs.

Q. What is the main purpose of the WPIF?

A. We exist to support our members’ panel production and processing activities, from raw material supply to factory emissions, through to the products in the market. We are a specialist and focused organisation in that we major on technical and environmental matters, where we seek to have influence at home, in Europe, and in some cases internationally.

We aim to influence and shape legislation, regulation and those standards which have a bearing on our members’ activities and, on occasions, we also have to resist changes that might be detrimental to our members.

Q. How is the WPIF funded and who belongs to it?

In common with just about every other trade organisation, our principle funding comes from members’ subscriptions. They are the UK and Irish manufacturers of particleboard, MDF and OSB, producing flat, rather than moulded, panels and we have 100% of those companies as members. We are also supported by the major resin manufacturers and we have some reciprocal memberships with other organisations.

Downstream processors of panels are not among our members, but we liaise with their representative organisations as required.

Q. How many staff does the WPIF employ and in what roles?

A. We have three staff: myself, a technical manager and one administrative person. To supplement our activities, we buy in specific consultancy expertise as the need arises and this gives us the capacity to be flexible, according to the needs of our members.

Q. What is the WPIF’s relationship with other organisations?

A. Where there is an issue of shared interest, we work closely with a wide range of industry bodies. On the raw material side, we liaise closely with CONFOR (The Confederation of Forest Industries in the UK) and the WRA (Wood Recyclers Association). On product-related issues, we deal with the UK Timber Trade Federation (TTF) and all those bodies which represent activities where our members’ products have an interaction. For example, the STA (Structural Timber Association); FIRA (Furniture Industry Research Association); and the BFC (British Furniture Confederation).

In Europe, we work particularly closely with, and are members of, the European Panel Federation (EPF). I am the chairman of the EPF’s Raw Material Task Force and our technical manager is vice chairman of its Technical Committee, but we participate across all of EPF’s agenda.

Q. How does the WPIF communicate with its members?

A. With eight panel manufacturing sites, operated by four companies, our lines of communication are relatively short. This also allows us to have an intimate relationship and liaise with key personnel right across their businesses.

As well as direct contact at site level, we also have technical and environment committees where we can focus on specific topics with company specialists.

The relationship with our members is a twoway street, as we need the input to inform the work we carry out on their behalf, and for that to work effectively, we need to be familiar with the companies and their operations.

Q. Does the WPIF have a role in informing the general public about the industry’s products?

A. Our focus is manufacturing, so we are not directly involved with public engagement and marketing, although there is some crossover, for instance in the lobbying campaign that we are engaged in. The member companies have very good public relations activities themselves, so they don’t look to us to engage in advertising or other such activities. As a ‘spokesbody’ for the industry, we do, from time to time, get called upon to make a comment or respond to the media.

We do respond to technical queries from outside the industry: the public; downstream processors; raw material suppliers, etc. These are on a whole range of topics.

To help with product related enquiries we have an online technical manual ‘Panel guide’, which is a joint venture between the TTF and TRADA (The UK Timber Research & Development Association) and our technical manager produces technical documents such as the recently-produced Floating Floor guide

Q. What is the WPIF’s role in political lobbying?

Lobbying is all about influence and as such most of our work is centred on lobbying in one form or another: sitting on standards, or other committees, is a lobbying activity. At the political level, we undertake specific activities around biomass energy, or more particularly around the subsidies which support it. These subsidies distort the market for the domestic wood supply and, in the long term, threaten that wood supply.

To support our political lobbying, we provide the secretariat to an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for the wood panel industry. This attracts the engagement of those MPs with a panel plant either in, or adjoining, their constituency. The APPG is a particularly useful tool, as parliamentary members can facilitate access to senior civil servants and government ministers.

At the EU level, and supporting the EPF, the Raw Materials Task Force which I chair helped to coordinate and inform the EPF’s input to the revision of the Renewable Energy Directive and we provided input to the ECs guidance around the principle of the cascaded use of wood.

Q. Is the WPIF involved in the setting of standards for the industry and in the voc debate?

A. We are active in these fields, both at the product and the processing level. Our technical manager chairs the UK Standards Committee for wood based panels and he will also represent our sector in European and international standards.

The debate surrounding formaldehyde and other VOCs is ongoing, particularly at the European level. In the UK, the government has indicated that, in its Clean Air Strategy, it will look at VOCs from products, so as and when there are changes proposed to reflect VOC requirements, we will be speaking up for our sector’s interests.

Q. Is the WPIF active in promoting wood products in general as a means of sequestering carbon?

Yes, but this tends to be through our lobbying role on matters such as biomass energy, where we seek to promote material use ahead of use for energy generation. A good example of this is our engagement with the Committee on Climate Change, whose most recent report makes particular reference to the carbon benefits arising from using wood in construction.

There is also the TTF’s Wood for Good campaign, which we endorse.

Q. How do you see the role of the WPIF changing in the future?

Our members are very good at responding to change and we will always strive to adapt our delivery such that it is in concert with the members’ needs. Any change in our operations is driven by our members, as it should be.

As long as we have a strong manufacturing base in the UK and Ireland, I am sure there will be a need for a dedicated representative organisation for that industry.

  • Mr Kerr and I agreed to avoid any reference to the issue of Brexit (the UK leaving the EU) and its likely effect on the UK industry, agreeing that it was impossible to predict, given that at the time of our meeting last December, the UK parliament was in total deadlock on the issue. With Britain’s departure from the European Union, if indeed it happens, scheduled for March 29, 2019, this issue of WBPI was published too early to comment.

Egger's plant at Hexham in the UK
Alastair Kerr
Photo courtesy of Huntsman