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Architects: Questions over EU 'not good for business'


British architects have warned that their competitiveness abroad will be badly damaged if the UK leaves the European Union.

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.’




Readers' comments (3)

  • A little off piste (as it's not really about the EU), but isn't Mark Middleton's quote a wake up call to the RIBA and ARB? If the architecture courses within the UK aren't generating the best people - then isn't there something fundamentally wrong with the architectural education system?

    Yes, if you're working on a project in another country and it's not english speaking, then recruiting from that country may be very useful (or having languages attached to architecture courses could help).

    Having a wider pool for talent is good, but knowing that the quality of the small pool in your own country is exceptionally high is also important.

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  • The previous comment takes an interesting spin on this story I contributed to. We have a great many of good, young architects employed at Grimshaw who were educated in Britain, I didn't mean to imply there weren't many to choose from. I still consider that the architectural education recieved in the UK is still the best around, but we must not ignore that many of the students who are educated here aren't British. Therefore employing them is easier if they are from an EU country, so if the ties were severed our potential employment pool would be reduced and with it a reduction of the cultural milieu we all enjoy.

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  • John Kellett

    Any architectural student from within the EU who has failed to qualify in their home country, and therefore cannot design buildings in that country in their own name, can freely enter the UK and set up in business here designing buildings without having qualifications or having to prove / demonstrate competency!
    Can the RIBA, ACA, CIBSE, IStructE, ICE and ARB etc. please lobby UK PLC to ensure that, like most European countries, it is a requirement that all building designers are suitably qualified. To allow anyone to design buildings without any consumer protection in place in the C21 is insane. The minimal 'protection' afforded by planning and building regulations legislation is negligible and is of course also present in those many EU nations who, quite rightly, think it dangerous to allow unqualified persons to design buildings. It should be a pan-European legislative requirement that all members of a building design team are suitably qualified for their role within that team.
    There is actually a 'employment lake' of trained and qualified British nationals fully qualified in many construction disciplines currently being 'overlooked' in favour of cheaper imported and un(der)qualified labour. Why?

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