As things stand – more than two years after the Leave vote – we still have no idea what it actually means for any sector of the economy, least of all construction.
Thirty-one weeks: that’s how long we have left in the EU. After that, the UK will be on its own, for better or worse. Just imagine if your two-year project had just 31 weeks to go – you would have a plan, right? You’d have skilled people in place to get the job done, and everyone would be familiar with the design, the costings, the key milestones. All the stakeholders would feed into the project, information would be shared, contingencies be discussed.
The construction industry gets a fair bit of bashing for missed deadlines, but in reality many projects are textbook examples of marshalling resources to deliver hugely complex designs to very tight timeframes. Day in, day out, construction professionals are ruled by deadlines. And a well-run project isn’t just about deadlines: there also needs to be a vision for the team – an idea of where it’s all going and how you’re going to get there.
Back to Brexit, and as things stand – more than two years after the Leave vote – we still have no idea what it actually means for any sector of the economy, least of all construction.
“Talk of transition periods has given way to taking odds on the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit – it’s 60:40, according to trade secretary Liam Fox”
The Chequers deal last month failed to clarify the government’s stance. Instead it sowed division in the Tory party, leading to the resignation of Boris Johnson and renewed speculation over how long Theresa May can cling on to the premiership. One message that did emerge is that the government – convinced that the Leave-voting 52% can be explained by an aversion to immigration – is determined to end the free movement of people. But what arrangement UK negotiators propose instead is unknown: we’ll have to wait for a separate migration report in the autumn for that.
All this uncertainty is taking its toll, as our reader survey of more than 600 construction professionals reveals. The overwhelming sentiment among respondents is that the government doesn’t care enough about construction to negotiate a deal that will enable the sector to function efficiently. Construction is simply not seen as a high priority in the way the finance, automotive and aerospace industries seem to be. To be fair, none of these sectors have received all the assurances they have sought, but their needs are frequently raised in the mainstream media. The public knows there are sector-specific needs and that efforts should be made to protect jobs. But where is the national debate about construction?
At the time Article 50 was being triggered, we got the debate going in the pages of Building with our own manifesto for Brexit. Feedback from industry leaders at the time was that demands such as ensuring freedom of movement for key skilled workers – at least for a transitional period – would need to be matched with pledges that the sector redouble efforts at modernisation: more training, more innovation, a better public image. While there’s still a long way to go on that front, there are signs the industry is making progress. Certainly there is renewed interest in modern methods of construction, and those at the cutting edge are investing in manufacturing on a scale that could transform the entire industry in the not too distant future.
On the Brexit front, however, we’ve seen no evidence of progress by the government in terms of taking into account construction’s interests and specific needs. Talk of transition periods has given way to taking odds on the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit – 60:40, according to trade secretary Liam Fox; 50:50, according to the Latvian foreign minister. Care to take a punt?
Let’s be clear: a no-deal scenario has been dubbed a “disorderly Brexit” for a reason. Overnight we will experience significant barriers to cross-border trade – we’re talking not just tariffs but also costly delays imposed by standards, regulations and red tape. And don’t forget that the free movement of EU workers will cease. The 21 months that firms would have had, under a negotiated exit, to adapt their business models seems to be slipping away.
Often the Brexit debate ends up in a row between the two extremes of “leave at all costs” versus “remain as we are” (incidentally, 70% of our respondents wish we could do the latter). Politicians have been so busy arguing among themselves, swayed by hardliners on both sides, that the pragmatic voice of business has been drowned out. We intend to help change that with our new campaign, Building Without Borders: Construction Needs a Deal.
If the government is as committed to getting a deal as it claims to be, then it must listen to an industry that is crucial to the UK economy and its social infrastructure. Our survey this week has given us a snapshot of the mood at a particular point in the negotiations, but we want to keep hearing your views and experiences, understanding the challenges your businesses face, and reflecting that in our coverage.
Find out more about the campaign and how you can get involved. Above all, the campaign aims to highlight construction’s importance to the national economy and to remind the government and the public not to ignore such a strategically important sector – the country depends upon it.
Chloë McCulloch, acting editor, Building