A vote for Scotland’s independence could mean big changes for the sector

Sarah Richardson

The construction sector’s involvement with frontline Scottish politics is not often a subject that generates headlines.

The last time it was - a decade ago with the long -running saga of the 10-times over budget Holyrood building - those headlines were ones the companies involved would probably rather forget.

But, as a number of industry voices - including engineering giant Babcock and the former chairman of Miller Group - joined a powerful group of business leaders lobbying against Scottish independence this week, the sector has once again started to become publicly involved with politics north of the border. And, while the industry is a peripheral issue to those campaigning on both sides of the debate, the implications of the referendum for construction firms doing business in Scotland and in the remainder of the UK have the potential to be far more wide-ranging than many have so far publicly acknowledged.

Scotland accounts for roughly one pound in every 10 spent on construction in the UK economy. And if Scotland votes for independence, firms headquartered elsewhere in the UK that continue to seek work there could be faced with divergent employment law and tax regimes, and potentially paying higher wages to staff who would now be working “abroad”.

In addition, if an independent Scotland were to be prevented from using the pound, businesses would need to take on currency exchange costs. On the flip side, however, some business people - particularly from small businesses - have argued that an independent Scotland would bring greater direct access to politicians, and greater opportunity for businesses to influence the policies that matter to them.

Scotland accounts for roughly one pound in every 10 spent on construction in the UK economy

Being able to judge the extent to which companies are aware of these issues is made harder by a reluctance from some who are against independence to speak out for fear of alienating potential clients who are strongly in favour. If you believe some rumours (staunchly denied by the “Yes” camp) this fear is being further fuelled by vague threats being made by some “Yes” supporters that businesses expressing scepticism could be disadvantaged in future tender lists.

Having just returned from a week-long trip to Edinburgh - as the referendum is due to start receiving its first votes, via postal ballot - it is obvious to me that those living in Scotland are immersed in the question of independence and its implications, in a way that, despite wide media coverage, the vast majority of those based in other parts of the UK are not.

At the Fringe Festival, which has been running this month, comedy and theatre productions were littered with references to independence, and even small audiences contained a handful who would respond to these mentions with applause, jeers or - in one case - an impromptu chant of the Proclaimers’ “I would walk 500 miles”.

The dominance of the subject north of the border is unsurprising - as is the fact that it is preoccupying the creative sector, given its hugely emotive connotations. But the contrast with the attention being paid to the issue by many businesses south of the border, not least in construction, is palpable. In the event of a “Yes” vote, that could be a dangerous oversight.

Sarah Richardson, editor