One Brexiteer ticks off Remainers (and that includes us at Building)

I invariably feel like the character in the early 20th century WH Bateman cartoons whenever I admit which way I voted on 23 June 2016: “The man who told his educated chums he voted for Brexit”.

The same wave of incredulity greeted me when I voiced an alternative view at the closing session of the otherwise splendid Building Live conference. What had been billed as a “debate” on Brexit was headed by an invigilator and panel entirely of Remainers. After offering my twopenny worth, I was thronged by bewildered journalists from Building, where I cut my teeth years ago. They didn’t quite say it but I could sense they were thinking: “But … you’ve been to university. You don’t wear a flat cap and race whippets. And, well … we’ve never heard you say anything racist.”

In the long term, however, Brexit could be the wake-up call that construction has needed for decades

To put the record straight, I adore ‘ Europe’ – but detest the European Union. Many, if not most Remainers romantically conflate the two. In my mind, the EU is, in reality, a dictatorial political construct that has been superimposed on the people and once sovereign states of Europe and is increasingly subjugating them. It is an anti-democratic, Byzantine, profligate, self-serving, incompetent and utterly, utterly unreformable gravy train driven by and for a French-led inner cabal. Literal proof of that gravy train is the 450km track between Brussels and Strasbourg, along which the European Parliament trundles once a month for four day sittings – at the insistence of France. Cost, an estimated £130m a year.

But, hey, let’s not get political. To return to the Building debate, how might leaving impact the building industry?

Starting ‘top down’ with the economy, I’ve never doubted that it’s going to be hugely uncertain over the next, say, five years, especially given efforts by shadowy bureaucrats and bankers to thwart negotiations. But government and Bank of England liquidity and investment should mitigate the shock waves, as they did post-financial crash. And not being shackled by a common currency allowed us to recover quicker than most of the Eurozone. Falling Sterling is probably a given but that should help exports.

But then we should go onto the front foot and become the northern hemisphere’s low tax and regulation oasis. Anything that Ireland and Luxembourg can do, we can do better.

Ironically, the one sector where there is little likelihood of shortages is architecture, which is the most pro-EU

The more we welcome, rather than ‘name and shame’, Apple, Starbucks et al to our shores the more of their dosh – and buildings – we’ll attract. Continuing on a controversial note, let’s reverse the EU’s 2014 bankers’ bonus cap (imposed by one Michel Barnier). The predicted “flood” of bankers out of the City has already been debunked; allow banks to be governed once more by market forces and there actually could be a flood, only inwards. Not palatable but it means more office space and building jobs.

It is the subject of jobs that has been exercising most critics of Brexit within the building industry. But does anybody really believe work will halt on 29 March 2019? Existing residents from the EU will undoubtedly be allowed to remain, possibly indefinitely. For industries where there are shortages of staff there could be bilateral agreements with any number of destinations, including the EU allowing, say, five-year renewable visas.

In the long term, however, Brexit could be the wake-up call that construction has needed for decades. We simply do not train enough young people. Instead of whinging about skills shortages, leaders should stop passing the buck and support a surge in apprenticeships, while higher education establishments could cut their more esoteric courses and train thousands of QSs, estimators and engineers.

Ironically, the one sector where there is little likelihood of shortages is architecture, which is the most pro-EU (in a Building survey, 78% of the profession wanted to stay). Architectural colleges have for decades churned out more graduates than needed. Meanwhile, the more urbane London firms that shriek about losing their cosmopolitan culture will undoubtedly be the most adroit in navigating work visas.

Who knows, in a few years’ time, when the Eurozone starts creaking following an Italian banking crisis, regional schisms and German voters refusing to bankroll the entire shebang they will have an even greater talent pool in which to fish.