Brexit Forum - Brita-in or Brita-out? 

In the light of the upcoming European Referendum, the organisers behind the UK Construction Week, surveyed construction professionals about the upcoming EU referendum. Of the 3,200 that took part, 57% believed the UK should stay in the EU, with 43% wanting to leave. Interestingly, engineers and architects are more likely to stay, with subcontractors voting by 58% to leave. 

At a forum on the 26th of May at Grimshaw Architects, a worldwide architectural practice, a mixed panel of industry experts was invited to discuss the realities of a Brexit to the Construction Industry. The panel, hosted by Brian Kilkelly, founder Member of the World Cities Network and Development lead of Climate KIC, consisted of Brian Berry, the Chief Executive of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), Cezary Bednarski, founder of Studio Bednarski, Paul Scully, MP for Sutton and Cheam, David Cash, Chairman of BDP, and Mark Middleton, the Managing Partner of Grimshaw Architects. 

Brian Berry began by turning the red tape argument on its head, arguing that regulation and skilled labour were vital in the UK Construction Industry, and being part of the EU, was therefore important to ensure a supply of suitably trained tradespeople, working in a well regulated environment. He did concede that many individual tradespeople would vote to leave based on their personal beliefs and experiences, but over half of them said that they would like more concrete information to inform their choices.

Cezary was keen to put what he called a ‘philosophical’ view to the audience. As a Polish immigrant many years ago, who had to fight for his British Citizenship, and who has completed many architectural commissions throughout the world, including Africa, he took the view that ‘elephants do not gallop’- the EU was too slow to respond to changing market conditions, and it was therefore in Britain’s best interests to leave. 

Paul Scully, businessman and recently elected conservative MP, had three reasons for voting to leave, trade, immigration, and sovereignty. He believes that Britain is shackled by EU Trade Groups, and stated we would be far stronger on our own. 

David Cash, also an architect, believes that Britain’s economic fortunes are firmly tied to the EU. In the longer term, businesses will continue to build connections in Europe, however an exit would surely create a ‘tough patch’ in the UK. He also argued that he has no issues with adopting several identities; English, British or European, depending on where he is in the world. 

Much like David, Mark Middleton not only enjoys the lifestyle of a European and visa free travel, but also is keen to emphasise that Britain holds a powerful ‘third position’ by not being part of the Schengen Agreement and the single currency. He sees that a breakaway from Europe will mean forcing us enter into negotiations for European Trade, something we have not done since the 1970s. He cites the Norway example of how not to do things- all the costs but with none of the influence. 

The first issue discussed was the Housing Crisis in the UK. David was first answer this, making the point that building housing is not necessarily connected to the EU. The London housing market has been overheated by international money buying up expensive properties at the expense of affordable housing in the capital. Brian Berry shares this view, suggesting that affordable housing was very much in the remit of the UK Government, and it was wrong to blame immigrants for it. He also put it down to the fact people are living longer, and the shortage of land to build on. Brexit would lead to a decline of investment in major infrastructure projects, because Europeans might withdraw from the UK. But also any ‘tough patch’ in the building industry created by a Brexit may see householders lacking the cash and confidence to upgrade or repair their homes.

In direct contrast, Cezary believes that money is neutral and will follow the market, so for him infrastructure investment is not an issue, and housing very much a responsibility for local authorities and housing trusts. By rewriting immigration rules, skilled people would be attracted to the UK to address the much-discussed shortage of construction skills.

This idea of widening the search for skilled workers was an attractive prospect also to Paul Scully, particularly with America and Australia. He also disagreed with Mark’s view of negotiating trade deals, claiming we already had trade deals with Europe, and a Brexit would allow Britain to move ‘nimbly’ through the international market, and allow many small British businesses a freedom from red tape. 

The debate then moved on to a discussion of infrastructure. The survey had revealed that 16% of respondents claimed that major infrastructure projects would be positively affected by Brexit, 47% said it would make no difference, and 37% thought that the effect would be negative. 

Mark feels that we are in a more important period of infrastructure building than in Victorian times, believing we have benefited from the EU, as we simply do not have enough skilled people in Britain, nor the funding. Paul believes with 95% of small business are currently not involved in major infrastructure, leaving the EU would make little difference. 

Given the opportunity to sum up their positions, it became clear that emotional arguments are just as important as practical or philosophical ones. The panel agreed that the EU needs to adapt to survive. Economically, there are still countries like Spain and Greece that need support. The balance between economic regulation and freedom needs to be redefined in order to create a more vibrant free market economy that would be more open to the world markets that Britain would like to trade with.

It also faces real difficulties like the immigration crisis and the threat of Russia, in which concerted European efforts will prove to be necessary to solve, regardless of Brexit. There is no doubt that Britain will still need to deal with the effects of migration, whether in or out. 

In a show of hands, a slimmish majority of the audience voted to stay in, although many stated that the debate had really helped them crystallise their thoughts on the upcoming referendum. 

company news construction Peter Brett
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