What impact would Scottish independence have on the country’s construction industry?


In the last month there have been two significant anniversaries for Scotland. The first is the 500 year remembrance of the Scots defeat at the battle of Flodden. Here history recounts the largest ever battle between the English and Scots with the latter being beaten into submission by English bowmen, crushing all sixteenth century dreams of an independent Scotland. The other was last month’s historic milestone that marked the 12 month countdown for modern Scots to get the chance to forget the woes of Flodden and vote on independence from their English sister nation. I think that even Alex Salmond might appreciate the sense of historical irony here.

Those in the locale tell me that despite their English ties, construction is getting better at the moment. Apparently the market is growing at about 10% year on year and although lagging slightly behind the South-east, the ripple effect is beginning to come through at last. Key sectors like defence, oil, commercial and residential are showing signs of greater demand for construction activity. So would independence help or hinder this growth? 

Those wanting independence would argue that control of the oil industry by a newly independent Scottish government would probably help the construction economy in terms of favouring local suppliers. But opponents highlight David Cameron’s threat to move the UK’s nuclear and naval capability out of the region.  I am not sure that one would not cancel the other out.

Maybe less time should be spent looking backwards trying to re-fight the battles of the 16th century

Also I am not certain that the market lacks any investment under the current arrangements. There seems to have been no shortage of support for Scottish regeneration over the past decade. Next year the Commonwealth Games come to Glasgow and having worked on some of the venues I have seen at first hand that they are newly built iconic structures of which the country should be proud. In addition, other parts of Scotland have gained from outside investment. HRH Prince Charles has undertaken a stunning restoration project at Dumfries house by harnessing some of the design skills of his wife’s talented sister. I have seen at first hand that key trades like stone masonry and thatching now have a home and a future. A shortage of skilled Scottish labour does not stop at the trades’ level. A recently released survey from the Scottish Building Federation says that 90% of its members found it a challenge to find suitably qualified construction managers. If Scotland is to go it alone, will people stay if salaries are higher in England?

What can be achieved through Anglo-Scot’s partnering are projects like the impressive Helix, an urban regeneration project connecting Grangemouth and Falkirk. Those travel hungry Europeans can now travel across the North Sea, enter the canal system on the east side of Scotland and get through to the west side due to the regeneration of the canal system.

It may be argued that with the oil revenues pouring into Scottish coffers there would be more public spending on more infrastructure projects like the Helix from which the regional construction market would benefit. However it is trade and taxes from business that fuels an economy, not just oil. It was recently quoted that the number of private businesses per 10,000 adults in Scotland is 735, compared with 1,098 in the South-east of England outside of London, 1,080 in the east of England. Even Wales at 769, has more private businesses than Scotland. Scottish businessmen and women will gravitate to where they can sell most and this is dictated by population size. They will not build more commercial, mixed use and residential property if there is not the demand.

No-one would be crass enough to argue that if independence happened the construction industry in Scotland would grind to a halt. However when certain world superpowers are already taunting the “United” Kingdom as being a “small out of touch Island,” as a spokesman for Russian supremo Mr Putin put it recently, then a dis-united rather than a United Kingdom would seem to support his warped view. Maybe less time should be spent looking backwards trying to re-fight the battles of the 16th century and more time spent considering the struggle to keep the UK as a globally relevant power in the 21st.

Richard Steer is chairman of Gleeds