As the slow-motion suicide that is Brexit unfolds into full horror, we see the pound set to sink below the euro, government encroaching on parliament’s democratic powers, and proposals to inhibit employers from recruiting talent overseas
It’s difficult to avoid writing about Brexit, as this is the most important political event in 50 years and will affect everything we do, including construction. It’s like watching the slow-motion economic suicide of a nation. With every fresh revelation, our leaders reach new heights of ambition – vaulting beyond their capability – yet simultaneously plumb unprecedented depths of naivety and incompetence.
I accept that the referendum revealed genuine concerns within our nation that have been ignored for too long. But if you have a sore throat, slitting your wrists is not the best cure. There are other ways apart from Brexiting to protect our own workers and culture, and we should have looked at those.
Instead, the vote was swayed by the charismatic loose cannon that is Boris Johnson, who seemed to have tossed a coin to determine which side he would join. And after the referendum was “won” and our would-be Brexit leaders back-stabbed each other, Theresa May – a Remainer – was shooed in without election as the only credible leader in the Conservative party: her position being that she did not believe in Brexit but would execute it if she could be leader – naked careerism.
A long transition period is our only hope, during which we can piece together the hundreds of trade deals we enjoy through the EU
What has happened to the integrity of our political class? Can you imagine Margaret Thatcher volunteering to implement policy she did not believe in? Or Blair, or Brown, or Heseltine? Never. These were big beasts with real principles. We are now led by pygmies who will do anything for the top job, alongside second-raters, like Davis and Fox, blown into office by this whirlwind and operating at a level well above their abilities.
The first year after the Brexit vote people kept saying, “Look how well the economy is doing; we are going to be all right.” Well, today the pound stands at less than 1:1.1 euros and is tipped to go below one euro, and the slowdown is upon us. Even exports are down. The banks (our golden geese) are preparing to flee, and there are tower cranes all over Frankfurt and Dublin.
The problem is that the Brexiteers had no plan and they have been very slow in coming up with one. Time is ticking by, and it’s not on our side. The EU, which is motivated by principle and philosophy, not pragmatism, can just keep saying “no” until we run out of time.
And anybody who thinks that we will be okay with a super-hard Brexit relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules has overlooked the fact that WTO is for goods, not services, but what we mainly export is services. A long transition period is our only hope, during which we can piece together the hundreds of trade deals that we enjoy through the EU and which will evaporate when we leave.
This last week has seen two examples of consequences that we might not have thought of. First, the “Great” Repeal Bill, which turns out to be a Trojan horse giving the government, not parliament, unfettered powers to change legislation on a whim – the so-called Henry VIII powers. So much for taking back democratic control of our country.
None of this thinking is going to work for us. We want to be able to hire the best talent from anywhere in the world, and for them to feel welcome here. That’s why we are the best of the best
The second unforeseen consequence to have hit the news recently is the leaked Home Office document about immigration. This is a subject that matters greatly to the construction industry. The leaked policy shows both draconian and ignorant tendencies.
All Building’s readers will know that the construction industry relies on overseas labour and talent to operate. On construction sites skilled foreign labour has been essential for decades, and in our professional offices often more than 50% of our teams are from overseas. The Home Office wants the government, rather than employers, to decide who can come in. That will be catastrophic.
The proposal is for short-term residency permits of between two years for manual workers and five years for professional workers, in order to discourage long-term residency. The government wants to set an income threshold and to limit the ability of migrants to bring family members here.
None of this thinking is going to work for us. We want to be able to hire the best talent from anywhere in the world, and for them to feel welcome here. That’s why we are the best of the best world-wide. Often our young architects come in from abroad at a low starting salary, which is likely to be below the Home Office threshold, and then build their career. Yes, we hire Brits, but at less than 5% unemployment there is no issue about Brits being able to find a job in our industry when properly trained.
Events are moving quickly, so this is no time for pussy-footing around. Our leaders in our professional bodies and the CIC need to drop on these issues like a ton of bricks or we will find ourselves led by the neck by Home Office red tape to an isolationist, less talented and less capable future.
Jack Pringle is principal, managing director EMEA at Perkins+Will