“Meet the Neighbours” was a brave attempt by the government to put a positive spin on the arrival of 10 new nations to the EU. Winning the hearts and minds of the British public won’t be easy. Anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of the national press is turning public opinion against Europe, and the benefits of expansion have been largely forgotten amid the daily dose of scare mongering in press headlines.
The construction industry knows better. It realises that labour from the new member states could help bridge the yawning skills gap in the UK. There are currently 550,000 unfilled vacancies in all industries in the UK and virtual zero unemployment in the South-east means that the construction industry is ready to welcome overseas labour with open arms.
There are conditions attached though. Anybody from a new member state applying to work in the UK must apply for a work permit when they arrive in the UK, and there will be restrictions on access to benefits if they decide to settle. Despite the restrictions the chancellor’s officials have hinted that up to 20,000 work permits might be available for East European construction workers.
Some observers believe that the fear of migrants overwhelming British towns and cities is a red herring. They believe that a large amount of construction work in the booming economies of Eastern Europe will keep most workers within their own borders. Economies in the East are growing by an average of 4% a year, and the extra inward investment generated by EU membership means it will be boom time for the foreseeable future.
Some of this inward investment will be created by building companies keen to take advantage of cheap, well-educated labour. Accession states will also be upgrading their utilities and infrastructure to meet EU standards, which will provide plenty of work for construction firms. Here there is a great opportunity for British consultants to help out.
Richard Steer, senior partner at QS and project manager at Gleeds, is convinced that contractors should go East. He has been in the region for 12 years and reckons that the amount of building in the East in the next 25 years will be massive.
So the message might be: make the most of the skilled migrant workers while you can. If the growth trend continues in the East the Poles, Czechs and Slovenes will go the same way as the Irish – back home.