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Brexit – the Younger Generation Speaks Out

On the 24th June 2016, it was announced that the British public want to leave the European Union. Or, if you prefer (and I don’t), that we want to ‘Brexit’. Economic and political uncertainty aren’t the industry’s friend and do have strong effects. It is our role, as G4C*, to bring the key issues facing the industry into the arena. Brexit has had huge repercussions in our industry already and will continue to create turbulence and risk.

This article introduces some of the issues that we believe need to be dealt with. It is the industry that we, as young professionals, will be leading and we have a responsibility to shape it. How might the threat of restriction of free movement affect the skills shortage? What effect will leaving the EU have on investment and financing models? And how will the UK form its own procurement regulations without added cost and red tape? This commentary is very much pro-EU and reflects how the majority of our network of young professionals voted, but we are not excluding ‘Leaves’ from the conversation. We invite you to read the article, judge it, and, whether you agree or not, make sure you get these comments back to us. After all, this is an industry for everyone.

Brexit, annoyingly, is catchy; there’s been no getting away from it. Yet one could have easily missed any focus on the repercussions Brexit could have on the construction industry (with industry awareness and importance a topic in itself for further discussion). Perhaps a catchy, prefixed or compound word would’ve helped the nation consider Brexit’s impact on construction. Brarchitects? Maybe if we were in the fashion industry. Brengineer? That almost works. Bricklayers? Now that does work, but if the Brexit were to cause restrictions on freedom of movement, bricklaying as a trade might not work for much longer. Our divorce from the EU, if messy, throws up the possibility of a restriction of this movement that has benefited the UK’s construction industry over the past two decades.

Labour from the EU, especially Eastern Europeans, has been essential in ensuring the delivery of construction projects, whether small home extensions or multi-million pound infrastructure projects, and we are in a position where we could lose them. We are at a breaking point in this industry where we are consistently told that hundreds of thousands more workers are required, yet there is the very real risk of losing the 12% of the UK construction workforce that are from the EU. The industry needs assurance of either (but preferably both) very significant investment in domestic training or the retention of complete freedom of movement. The success of the industry relies on both of these.

There’s also the very real issue of investment that needs addressing – a topic far too reaching, powerful and worrying to cover comprehensively in this piece. The EU removes trade barriers amongst its member states, and by doing so allows easy access to the multi-trillion dollar market. This not only supports member states to invest capital in UK projects, but also for foreign investment in UK construction companies (see Pell Frischmann in 2015). We then have our exit from the European Investment Bank and the Fund (EIB and EIF) who, between 2011 and 2015, invested over €29billion in UK projects.

EU labour may be here to stay for a couple of years at the least, but the impacts of the Brexit on funding will be immediate and long lasting. Confidence building in regards to continued investment is of paramount importance if delays to major infrastructure and construction projects are to be avoided; this needs to happen with urgency. And just how are we going to keep, and promote, foreign investment and vice versa?

With labour and investment comes procurement. EU procurement directives ensure best value for money and provide protection against corruption and bribery, as well as general open and fair competition through processes such as the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU). Whichever way the UK decides to go forward with restructuring procurement, the regulations will have to accommodate and meet the EU’s minimum requirements in order to gain whatever access we can to their market of goods, products and services. This either means keeping them exactly the same (seems unlikely – UK-based business stipulation?) or adding extra provisions: in other words more red tape and more cost. The government needs to consult with the industry to shape procurement to its needs and to settle concern within the industry.

The government and key industry leaders need to quickly and proactively address the concerns of the industry to safeguard its progression and continued success post-financial crisis. This can only be done by ensuring continued freedom of movement and commitment to training, giving assurance of protected investment, and the inclusion of industry opinion. It is vital to engage the younger workforce in shaping their industry’s future. The Brexit could however see benefits through creating an imperative to change within the construction industry. Remain or Leave, your voice needs to be heard as uncertainty affects us all without discrimination. As the generation for change and the future of construction, are you ready to join the debate and take a lead in our post-Brexit industry?

Liam Hewitt is a board member of G4C

*G4C (Generation for Change) is the young professional voice of the UK built environment industry, and an integral part of Constructing Excellence – the single organisation charged with driving the change agenda in construction. To find out more, visit www.g4c.org.uk