British architects have warned that their competitiveness abroad will be badly damaged if the UK leaves the European Union.
More from: EU construction back in decline
Prime minister David Cameron this week pledged to hold a referendum by 2017 on whether the country should stay in the EU.
But senior industry figures said leaving the union would make it much harder to employ talented workers from the continent and to compete for projects there.
They added that uncertainty during the four years before the referendum may halt inward investment just when the country needs it most.
Paul Rynsard, managing partner at Feilden + Mawson, which has offices in the UK and the Czech Republic, told AJ: ‘Uncertainty is never good for business – the question is how will others that we might do business with perceive us in the years running up to any vote?’
Cameron wants to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU before the referendum.
But Rynsard said: ‘There is a vagueness to what the government is seeking to change – we suspect when we hear business leaders and politicians that they mean reducing employment costs and rights of employees.
‘We have dedicated staff mainly because of the social contract we have to pay them a good wage and comply with employment codes and rules. Are those people going to come to the UK when they can go elsewhere and get the social contract they want?’
Mark Middleton, London managing partner at Grimshaw, added: ‘We have a lot of Europeans that work here, because we try to get the best people we can. Leaving the EU would disadvantage us against practices in Paris and Rome that would have a wider talent pool to choose from.
‘It would be very culturally narrowing, and we would become very insular. We have grown up with the EU and the benefits are not talked about as much as the problems.
‘When we do work abroad, we always pair with a local firm because it brings a different perspective. We would lose some of that if we closed the borders.’
Middleton agreed that uncertainty leading up to 2017 would reduce the amount of investment coming to the UK.
‘If I was a European business leader, I would question moving a big manufacturing plant to London now. The UK government will have to trigger investment and become incredibly British-focused to counter that. It is a completely different mindset.’
Tim Bowder-Ridger, managing director at London and Brighton-based Conran and Partners, bemoaned the long delay between the announcement and the vote.
‘The length of time we are going to be talking about this before we vote is frustrating,’ he said.
The risk is to the overall economy if confidence is knocked in the City of London
‘The risk is to the overall economy if confidence is knocked in the City of London. This knocks on to confidence in the construction industry and that’s where architectural practices will suffer.’
Bowder-Ridger added that leaving the union would make it harder for UK-based practices to win work in member countries.
‘The danger would be that if we are outside the EU we would not be on a level playing field when pitching for European projects,’ he said. ‘Conditions may be imposed on us as outsiders.’
There is, however, some hope that Cameron will be able to use the threat of exit to reduce the level of bureaucracy architects are subject to from Brussels.
Bowder-Ridger said: ‘Where I have some sympathy with the prime minister is that the EU started as an open market and that is very much in the tradition of British culture.
‘I would prefer the EU to be more trade and less government.’
Middleton said that if the UK was to redraw its conditions of membership of the EU then it should focus on cutting regulation.
‘The EU has come to stand for red tape and it could be more streamlined. I’d like to see a condition imposed on reducing red tape.’
There is also a belief that the referendum may encourage British firms to look even further for work – a trend that has already begun in the wake of the eurozone crisis.
Middleton said: ‘Leaving would make it harder to bid for work in mainland Europe. It is already almost impossible to get a project in France.
‘We would perhaps look further afield – we work in places such as Asia, Australia and Canada and in this sense UK practices could become more international.’
Bowder-Ridger agreed. ‘We are doing more and more work in the Far East,’ he said.
‘We’ve seen UK practices looking away from Europe over the past five years, and that will increase. If we leave the EU it will really accelerate.’
What Cameron said on an EU referendum
‘The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament. It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart.
‘And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice: to stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.
‘Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament.
‘It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics.
‘I say to the British people: this will be your decision.’
Architects: Questions over EU 'not good for business'