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What will Brexit mean for architects seeking work in Europe?

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Despite the disruption at home, experts are bullish about the UK’s profession’s European trade prospects, reports Merlin Fulcher

Discussing the surprise result of last week’s EU membership referendum, competitions organiser Malcolm Reading argued European clients will continue to hire UK firms just as before.

He said: ‘Short term we just launched a competition for a client in the European Union and they haven’t pulled the plug. There is no reason that would stop British architects from entering.

‘There is nothing to stop British architects from entering any competition in the world like they have done in the past, and they will continue to win them.’

Likewise Tony Fretton of Tony Fretton Architects urged optimism. He said: ‘There’s 20 years of goodwill which has been built up between UK architects and those commissioning projects on the continent, and I don’t think that will necessarily be endangered.’

In the next five years it will still be possible to build in Europe

He continued: ‘Until formal cessation we are still part of the EU. If we still have a right to work and they are still interested in British work in Europe, it should not have any effect.

‘I’m not retrenching. It might slightly change but it’s manageable, and in the next five years it will still be possible to build in Europe.’

Full details of the UK’s exit from the EU have yet to be confirmed, however until the ‘Article 50’ exit procedure begins and existing treaties are severed all public procurement will remain unchanged.

The UK’s continued participation within the European Economic Area (EEA) – permitting tariff-free exchanges of goods and services – is furthermore expected to cushion any exit.

In this scenario – which may take two years to finalise – the UK would continue to follow EU procurement regulations with competitions and commissions still advertised in the OJEU.

RIBA councillor and procurement specialist Walter Menteth argued there would be little immediate change in the UK procurement environment as a result. He said: ‘We’ve already adopted the public contract regulations 2015 which are basically a transposition of the EU procurement directive.

I don’t think we are going to see any change in core regulations because other things will have priority

‘Having adopted those it is unlikely, without a huge expansion of civil services, there would be parliamentary time to consult widely on amendments to those in any material way.’

He continued: ‘I don’t think we are going to see any change in those core regulations, simply because other things will have greater priority.’

Looking ahead, Menteth argued that optional elements of the EU procurement directive could become mandatory in this new landscape of EEA-only membership.

One such example is project bank accounts which were introduced to improve payment practices on Design and Build contracts and could help many architects.

The UK government would furthermore have no say on future EU procurement rules. This means a range of policies our government blocked – such as efforts to break up contracts for the benefit of SMEs – could now be more easily enforced.

Failure to secure such an early trade agreement, Menteth however speculated, could see open international competitions become a lifeline for UK architects seeking work on the continent.

He said: ‘There has been a huge growth in cross-European work. If I look back to before the EU that wasn’t happening. At that time the only way of gaining access was open design contests.

‘Open design contests have always been very important but [in such a scenario] they will grow in importance if people want to get European work.’

Looking ahead, Reading commented: ‘Long term OJEU is an excellent system which the industry understands and I can’t see the government changing the requirement of procurement any time soon. The OJEU process will go on for a long time and may never be overturned.

‘I feel very upbeat about this and we think British architects are second-to-none for getting out in the world and winning work.’

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Nothing is going to change in a hurry- even the leaders of Brexit are back tracking fast on when if at all to invoke Article 50. If and when it happens, I suspect it will take a long time to unstitch the status quo and in the meantime, nothing will change in the eyes of the law. So, EU procurement rules will be with us a while longer.

    My sense is that the UK public sector - and increasingly the larger private sector clients - have invested so much in what they believe are ‘fair and equitable’ procurement routes and are secure in the knowledge that these are tried and tested through what have been quite onerous legal requirements of OJEU. As such, I think they will be very cautious about throwing everything out.

    However, I would caveat that by saying that, for many, procurement is hugely expensive so when we are disentangled from Europe we should hopefully expect some simplification.

    Whether this presents opportunity for smaller practices or those without a track record of past projects remains to be seen; I am not optimistic that any other than the most design-confident organisations will make substantive moves in that direction: unless it can be proven that the advantages outweigh the risks. To be fair, many of these organisations are already finding ways to be more innovative within the current rules.

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