Building is calling on our readers to complete our survey about your priorities for the sector in the negotiations ahead

Building A Better Brexit

Sarah Richardson

Theresa May began her much-awaited Brexit speech on Tuesday by saying that the country voted to leave the union “with its eyes open”. But given the unknown quantity of any Brexit deal, not to mention the odd unhelpfully misleading slogan emblazoned across a bus, even the most die-hard leave campaigner would have to acknowledge there was a fair amount of uncertainty as to what a post-EU Britain would look like.

May’s speech, however, offered the clearest picture yet of what that is shaping up to be. An exit from the single market – but a possible reciprocal customs agreement with the union, and greater emphasis on wider international trade. EU law enshrined in British law – until parliament decides otherwise. Control of immigration from Europe – but guarantees over the rights of EU citizens already living here. And an attempt to agree phased implementation of changes with EU leaders, to avoid a “cliff edge” for business.

May said the government does not want a “half in, half out” agreement; yet the 12 objectives she outlined do, in several areas, sound suspiciously like a balancing act. Nonetheless, that approach should attract relief rather than ridicule: it’s a welcome dose of common sense from a political leader in a world that, as this Friday’s inauguration ceremony over in the US shows, is in danger of feting personality and grandstanding above all else.

Realistically, whatever May had said on Tuesday, she would have drawn vocal criticism from both those wanting a full-blown, end-all-contact divorce from the EU and those who refuse to reconcile themselves to the outcome of the vote. But where exactly in the broad middle ground she has drawn the line is worth close examination.

For the construction industry – those who trade in products in particular – the explicit withdrawal from the single market is likely to cause concern.

Although only 20% of construction products used in the UK are imported, 61% of these come from the EU, according to the Construction Products Association. Over time, of course, the UK could seek to develop greater internal capacity; but one key function of these imports is that they act as a buffer in periods of rising demand while UK product manufacturing capacity increases.

If restrictions are placed on this trade, prices will inevitably rise, and it will take longer for the industry to respond to periods of high demand – which increases the chances of any downturns being prolonged. May says she wants “the greatest possible access to the single market, on a reciprocal basis” – for construction, the significance of the terms of that deal cannot be underestimated.

The other crucial aspect of any Brexit deal for construction is over immigration controls, and how these affect the availability of both low-skilled and skilled construction workers in the UK. Here, May gave little detail, but at the same time as insisting that the UK should have complete control over the number of people that come to the country from the EU, she also alluded to the general need to “fill skills shortages” and attract “international talent”.

With these huge questions still very much to be resolved, perhaps the point made by May that will resonate most with the industry is that it is in “no one’s interest for there to be a cliff edge” as the UK withdraws from the EU. The prime minister’s desire to agree “phased implementation” of the UK’s final Brexit terms could make a huge difference to a sector which will need to overhaul its business models and skills programmes in order to achieve the growth that will enable it to deliver the UK’s pressing built environment needs.

But for that transitional period – and a final deal – to work for the industry rather than undermine it, the government needs to much better understand the implications of the once-in-a-generation deal it is imposing on the sector. For that reason, this week Building is calling on our readers to complete our survey about your priorities for the sector in the negotiations ahead (see pages 24-26). The survey, part of our Building a Better Brexit campaign, will be used in the House of Lords to inform scrutiny of the government’s proposals, providing a voice for the industry in parliament.

For the industry to avoid that cliff edge, I urge you to have your say – and help us to help construction make itself heard.

Sarah Richardson, editor

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.