The election provides the chance to drive home key messages around areas for Brexit negotiations. If we come together, we can work for the changes we want from leaving Europe
The prime minister’s decision to call a snap election was a welcome surprise for the construction sector, with many commentators highlighting the numerous opportunities it presents us. Time will tell whether the Conservative Party can retain its sizeable advantage in the polls, but in the aftermath of the prime minister’s announcement there was optimism that the election would help clarify the government’s agenda on infrastructure and housing and bring further stability to the market.
And if these issues are given proper air time during the campaign, they give us the opportunity to keep reinforcing the message in public forums that construction is a productivity multiplier – that investing in infrastructure of all types has a direct and positive impact on the country’s economic health and people’s quality of life.
Of course, comparatively more has been made of the role the election could play in strengthening the prime minister’s hand in Brexit negotiations.
Along these lines, let’s see Brexit as an opportunity, not a threat. It is too easy to get caught up in hand-wringing about the perilous position we will find ourselves in – about the dwindling skills base, about threats to the infrastructure pipeline, about skyrocketing costs of materials. I prefer to be optimistic.
We need to identify which materials, components and products are imported, then identify opportunities for UK manufacturers to fill gaps
Build UK has helpfully developed an analysis of our industry’s key issues in the Brexit negotiations, and in that I see clear messages for us all to echo over the final weeks of the election campaign, to help set the scene for the Brexit negotiations.
In particular, on imports and exports. Yes, we import £4.9bn more building materials and components from the EU than we export, and 15% of all manufactured construction products consumed in the UK are imported from the EU. But long before the EU referendum, the government’s Construction 2025 Strategy called for reducing the industry’s trade deficit by 50%. We already knew we needed to correct our over-dependence on imports for building materials. To make sure government is well informed for negotiations, we need to identify which construction materials, components and products are imported and why; then identify opportunities for UK manufacturers to grow to fill any gaps.
Then, there is regulation. In theory, after the Great Repeal Bill, any of the vast range of EU regulations will be within parliament’s power to change, and we could potentially face volatility, inconsistency and lowering of standards. But on the other side of that coin, we have the potential to update, simplify and repeal legislation and regulations in order to better benefit the UK. Industry should take the lead in developing specific proposals based on first-hand experience of what needs improving.
On to project pipelines. The European Investment Bank and European Investment Fund have invested around €7.8bn (£6.6bn) in UK infrastructure. So following our exit from the EU, there is a clear risk of reduced investor confidence and levels of public investment. Clearly, for the sake of market confidence, government needs to continue to demonstrate its commitment to build an infrastructure system fit for the 21st century.
We can turn this into an opportunity by supporting efforts to access schools and demonstrate the great careers in construction
But the industry has an opportunity now to make its case for enhanced governmental investment – for example, by presenting a joined-up view of construction showing the link between the delivery of homes, modern-day workplaces, and infrastructure that keeps the UK growing. We need to agree – within the built environment sector and then with government – a construction and investment plan including an integrated vision for housing, social and economic infrastructure.
As for skills, we are probably more sensitive to the loss of these than any other risk, with roughly half the construction workforce in London made up of migrant labour. And unfortunately the rights of existing EU workers to remain in the UK remain uncertain. But we really do have the ability to turn this crisis into an opportunity by coming together as an industry and supporting existing efforts to access schools and demonstrate to the next generation the great careers that can be had in construction.
Many pieces of the skills jigsaw are starting to fall into place. Despite a pause for election purdah, the review of Industry Training Boards being conducted by former chief construction adviser Paul Morrell will resume, and the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) will soon present a clear vision of how it can be the catalyst for skills development.
Meanwhile, the government’s introduction of a new skills plan could help establish clear entry and progression routes for careers in construction. Critically, the new T-levels can help redress the esteem gap that has served as a disincentive for many bright and motivated young people from entering the built environment professions.
These are all positive developments, and it is good to see signs that we as an industry are getting on with the job of preparing for the future. Yes, the election has put some things on pause, but I am confident that come 9 June, we will be straight back on the track to building a better Brexit.
James Wates is chairman of Wates Group, the CITB and Build UK