There are far more important things for construction to worry about than Brexit – yes, it’s a Bad Thing, but will anyone really notice in the long run?

Richard Threlfall

I am sorry to say it, but in my opinion the UK is a pretty depressing place to be at the moment, unless you happen to live in a croft in one of the remotest parts of the country, have no form of communication with the outside world and spend your time being at one with nature. But in that case it’s unlikely you will be reading this article anyway.

It’s not just that absolutely everything is saturated in Brexit – like an overgenerous helping of custard on the pudding. It is also the pervading sense of unease that the outcome is so unpredictable, that none of us can do anything about it and that what happens between now and the end of March and beyond seems to rest so heavily on arcane political manoeuvrings.

Try to set aside momentarily your emotions and savour the opportunity to see UK constitutional history in the making

Last year I managed to dodge most of this by spending a lot of time out of the country. Almost everywhere outside the UK I found positivity about the present and optimism for the future, along with a combination of bewilderment and amusement at the bizarre state of UK politics. 

But let me try to make the case that we should focus less on Brexit and look beyond it. 

I have always loved history – it was my main subject at university. Among other things, it teaches you to have perspective and to see a bigger picture. It suggests that what causes public outcry at one point in time eventually recedes and is dulled in the kaleidoscope of our past.

Try to set aside momentarily your emotions and savour the opportunity to see UK constitutional history in the making. The machinations in the House of Commons may be ridiculed as a game, but it is nothing new – imagine how it may have felt at the time that King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, or Home Rule for Ireland was passed on the third attempt. Part of the reason Brexit feels so uncomfortable for so many is because it follows such a long period of consensus. 

For UK construction, Brexit is a whopper red herring. Far more critical is our industry’s fragmentation, lowest‑cost procurement, failure to invest in skills and rate of take‑up of technology

Now it feels like that consensus has been completely shattered and politics has become much more polarised. I certainly feel personally very strongly that taking the UK out of the world’s biggest trading bloc is a mistake. And I deeply dislike the anti-immigrant sentiment that is held by some of those wishing us to leave the single market. It stirs up hatred and is against all the evidence that the vast majority of immigrants are net contributors to our society, culturally as well as economically.  

But let’s say we do leave, even with no deal and all the mayhem that may entail. The next morning the world will not have stopped and the UK will still be part of it. The UK’s unique confluence of language, law and longitude will continue to give us competitive advantage. We will muddle through and stuff will get sorted out, because it will have to.

And in the long run, the economic fundamentals will prevail. The UK population is growing, and all those citizens will need houses and healthcare and roads and electricity. The ideological gulf between the UK’s main political parties seems to be widening, but no politician is arguing that we don’t need to invest in infrastructure. And the current chancellor of the Exchequer sees more capital spending as an antidote to the risk of slower growth. In the long run we will continue to build. 

Technological progress will continue to respect no boundaries. The increased use of offsite manufacturing, BIM and robotics are inevitable in our industry. As we crunch ever larger and more diverse data sets, we will find new insights that improve the planning, construction, maintenance and operation of the nation’s assets. In the long run we will build more efficiently.

Most economists agree that Brexit, if it happens, will slow the UK’s economic rate of growth. But will we notice? History suggests not. The fall in the value of the pound has shoved up the cost of foreign holidays, but that is a first-world problem. Chocolate bars are getting smaller because the manufacturers care about obesity, apparently. 

We will never know what could have been, so we won’t miss it. We can be envious about quality of life elsewhere – you can do that today if you have the chance to experience healthcare in Norway – but you probably won’t. If Brexit hurts us in the long run, most won’t notice. And so demand will remain for everything our industry creates and maintains.

In the UK’s largely domestic construction industry, Brexit is a whopper red herring. Far more critical is our industry’s fragmentation, lowest-cost procurement, failure to invest in skills and rate of take-up of technology. 

So of course worry about what happens after 29 March – but focus on what is happening in your own business and within your control.

Richard Threlfall is global head of infrastructure at KPMG