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May's Brexit speech: Profession fears loss of EU workers

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  • 1 Comment

Architects have voiced their concern over the rights of EU workers in the UK, following prime minister Theresa May’s long-awaited Brexit speech

During her speech on Britain leaving the European Union at Lancaster House, central London, May said she wanted to control immigration.

But she added that she wanted to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, as well as the rights of British nationals living in EU member states. 

May confirmed that Britain would be leaving the single market, and said a ‘bold, new’ free-trade agreement with the EU would be introduced. The speech set out out the government’s 12-point plan, for a ‘smooth and orderly’ Brexit, which May said would seek a ‘new and equal partnership’ with EU.

Speaking to the AJ, architects and those from the wider construction industry voiced their concerns over May’s pledge to limit immigration from the EU, but there was also praise for her international approach to the Brexit negotiations.


Jane Duncan, president, RIBA 

After the referendum vote, we outlined a number of key priorities to allow for the continued success of our industry. These included ensuring the UK could access the best global talent and fill skills gaps; allowing a continuation of vital UK/EU partnership work in research and innovation; and recognising the need to further devolve powers to support a better built environment across the UK. I’m pleased to see the government recognises how vital such measures are to UK success.

Continued uncertainty over the status of EU citizens working in the UK is casting a long shadow over the architecture sector

However, continued uncertainty over the status of EU citizens currently living and working in the UK, and of UK citizens living and working in the EU, is casting a long shadow over the architecture sector. Around one quarter of ARB-registered architects are [non-British] EU citizens, and they make a substantial contribution to our vital industry. Our government and governments across the EU must act swiftly to resolve this issue. 

Roger Hawkins, partner, Hawkins\Brown

The prime minister seems to be addressing her own backbenchers rather than giving any clear guidance for business. As architects we are asked to specify bricks and glazing systems supplied from Europe for delivery in 2018 without knowing their cost or availability.

Our staff and students don’t know if they have the right to live and study in the UK. Our clients don’t know where the money is coming from. We need a trade deal.

Mark Middleton, managing partner, Grimshaw

Whether we agree or not, it was a clear speech. After Brexit we won’t be in the EU, and the prime minister doesn’t want to give the EU any hold over us by saying we want to take this or that from them. It’s a bold move given the closeness of the vote.

May’s speech calls for a global outlook, and that means we will be better supported and encouraged in our international endeavours. It might also mean there will be increased inward investment in the UK, which is good news.

Heinz Richardson, board director, Jestico + Whiles

I’m not sure we heard much new in this speech.

Big questions remain such as the terms under which EU nationals can work here and vice versa; 40 per of the members of our practice come from the EU, so this is a critical issue in our eyes. Around 60 per cent of construction material imports to Britain come from the EU and the exact nature of any trade deal will have a profound impact on the future of our sector.

I’m not sure we heard much new in this speech

The ambitions contained in the speech, while laudable, are unlikely to become reality. What is certain, however, is that significant change looms on the horizon.

Johnny Caddick, managing director, Moda Living

On work sites across the country you will find people of all nationalities working hard to deliver the homes, offices and other built assets Britain needs to thrive. For those involved in construction, the relentless focus on immigration is unnerving; our domestic workforce couldn’t plug in the gaps migrant labour fills.

Traditional construction methods are still the best option and that means access to labour is crucial.

Melanie Leech, chief executive, British Property Federation

Real estate contributes £94 billion annually to the UK economy. In Theresa May’s speech we are pleased to see that the government is focused on ensuring as much certainty as possible, which will support our industry in driving forward much-needed growth across the UK.

It is also positive to see that the prime minister wants to guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in Britain as this will form part of the country’s ability to retain the highest calibre of global talent, but future supply needs to be guaranteed.

Mark Farmer, chief executive of Cast and author of the Farmer Review 

Brexit has the potential to further accelerate decline in what is already a shrinking construction workforce, so securing the rights of EU migrant construction workers already here in Britain is essential. If not, we could see the size of the labour pool reduce dramatically in London and across the country. This could lead to critical shortages of workers for large infrastructure projects such as HS2 and Hinkley Point, as well as further reducing the sector’s capacity to deliver the government’s housing targets.

Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive, UK Green Building Council

We welcome the suggestion that ‘Britain will remain at the forefront of collective endeavours to … make better the world in which we live’ and the prime minister’s specific reference to ‘clean energy’ as a way of doing this. However, today’s speech feels like a missed opportunity not to position Britain more explicitly as an aspiring world leader in tackling climate change. Low-carbon and renewable industries represent significant value to our economy, and should make important contributions to Britain taking ‘a leading role on science and innovation’.

While it is encouraging to hear that the ‘acquis’ (the current body of EU law) will be converted into British law, we would like Brexit to result in environmental protections that are at least as strong, if not stronger, than the current EU provisions.

Brian Berry, chief executive, Federation of Master Builders 

We have a firmer idea of the Government’s priorities and how they may impact upon the construction sector. However, that we still have so little detail goes to show the enormity of the task ahead. The heavily speculated departure from the customs union risks pushing up material prices and of course, the immigration debate will be particularly pertinent in a sector heavily reliant on EU-national labour.

The Government must remain focused on its domestic housing and infrastructure targets amidst its Article 50 negotiations, which will mean working closely with the construction industry in order to ensure we secure a Brexit that works for firms large and small.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It is scandalous that the profession seeks to scapegoat UK nationals and denigrate our schools of architecture, thinly veiling its patently racist predeliction for white middle class staff from the EU. And while the RIBA contemptibly awards prizes to its members in the name of Stephen Lawrence. Treachery and hypocrisy.

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