Theresa May’s speech on Brexit has done little to reassure construction that the government understands the industry’s concerns, says Andrew Stunell

Building A Better Brexit

Andrew Stunell

The new government says it wants the construction industry to deliver bigger and better than ever before: a million houses by 2020, with the third runway for Heathrow, Hinkley Point, HS2, Crossrail 2, and the northern powerhouse all queuing up for starts. And on top of that a possible post-Brexit surge in exports needing a large-scale programme of commercial and industrial developments to enable it. Not to mention the schools programme, the prisons programme, the NHS capital programme, and rail electrification. It seems a key priority is more construction, faster construction and lower cost construction. A growing construction industry.

But the government also says Brexit means Brexit. Which means 1 in 10 of the sector’s workforce (4 in 10 in London) will no longer be eligible to work here if free movement of labour is stopped. And common standards of building elements and product performance, and the mutual recognition of professional qualifications will be undermined if free movement of goods and services goes too. If those things happen it seems construction will be able to do less, have to do it more slowly, and do it at higher cost. A shrinking construction industry.

After six months of the new government, the prime minister has only this week offered a hint of how these contradictions are intended to be resolved, and the construction industry has been left with little detail to be able to assess the impact on the sector. No surprise that last autumn the Construction Products Association republished its standard 10-year forward review with a three-year horizon instead.

After Theresa May’s speech this week we now know she wants a “hard” Brexit as opposed to a “soft” one – a withdrawal from the single market, a rejection of the European Court of Justice and a possible fudge over the customs union. But while we have some insight into the broad objectives of the negotiations, it is anyone’s guess as to whether they can be achieved.

Ministers seem to be sitting with a blank sheet of paper, with no plan of action for preserving and expanding the construction industry

Meanwhile some sectors have managed to push their way to the front and claim some ministerial attention. Financial services for one, and the car industry for another. In both cases we now know that the government will be going into the Brexit negotiations alert to their needs, and ready to fight for their interests. Now agriculture has also been told that temporary visa arrangements are to be delivered that mean lettuces and potatoes can still be picked in Lincolnshire each season.

It’s good that some sectors have got their voices heard. But the construction sector, bigger than car manufacturing and aerospace combined, and the key to the delivery of the housing and infrastructure at the heart of the nation’s policy agenda, has been blanked out. Perhaps literally – ministers seem to be sitting at their desks with a blank sheet of paper in front of them, with no analysis of risk or opportunity, let alone a plan of action, for preserving and expanding the construction industry.

In this first two months of 2017, there is a unique opportunity to put that oversight right. We know that if as expected later this month the Supreme Court rules that parliament must give its approval before Article 50 can be triggered, the government will immediately table a bill to authorise that. It has to be debated and voted on in both the House of Commons and the Lords. The two Houses do different jobs. Put simply, the Commons does the carpentry and the Lords does the joinery when legislation goes through. So the reality is that much of the detailed action will play out in the House of Lords in the month or so following the publication of the Article 50 bill.

That is when the voice of the construction industry can make an impact. And that is why I was asked by Lord Newby to lead an inquiry into exactly what should be the British government’s negotiating brief for the construction industry, and to work to get that onto the piece of paper the minister takes to Brussels. The absolute priority now is to make sure we do get the key outcomes needed correctly identified and acknowledged, and built into the UK’s negotiating position for the next two years.

Of course, it is part of a bigger picture, with colleagues looking in depth right across the economy to make sure that the risks and opportunities for each sector are properly understood by ministers before they rush off to the EU to make deals. But I don’t believe there is any other sector so important to long-term UK success that has been so completely left out of the government’s Brexit planning as construction. Please help to put that right!

I have already had a flood of helpful information from across the industry. Now you can give your input via Building’s survey, and reinforce the case that urgently needs to be made for construction’s vital contribution to be safeguarded in the Brexit negotiations.

Andrew Stunell is a member of the House of Lords and a former minister with responsibility for building regulations

How can I contribute?

The best way to have your views heard is by completing our survey. We have received some very positive feedback to our campaign so far – but we want more. Our survey contains a number of questions which we want you to answer in order to tell us about the Brexit priorities for construction as you see them.

The closing date for submissions is 31 January.