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Ben Derbyshire on Brexit: 'The UK's magnet for global talent is at risk’

Ben derbyshire wide shot ac
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RIBA president Ben Derbyshire explains the institute’s new policy on immigration and why simply rolling out the Byzantine work-visa system to EU nationals post-Brexit would be a disaster

When it comes to Brexit, the RIBA’s number one priority is ensuring that Britain’s exit from the EU doesn’t imperil its preeminent position as a magnet for the very finest talent from around the world. We are clear that whatever the politics of Brexit, UK architecture has benefited enormously from the contribution of European and non-European colleagues, who have enriched architectural practice in this country with their perspectives and their ideas. That’s why the RIBA has released a new report, drawing on the experiences of architects across the country, with recommendations for a post-Brexit immigration system that works for UK architecture.

The RIBA is clear that the government’s first duty is to provide some much-needed reassurance to those European colleagues already living and working here that they are valued and will be encouraged to stay. I’m sad to report that the uncertainty is already biting. Practices are telling us that talent from the EU has already begun to trickle away, a situation that I am concerned will continue until a proper settlement is reached that gives architects from the EU the peace of mind they need to commit to staying.

Practices are telling us that talent from the EU has already begun to trickle away

The Migration Advisory Committee – the body charged with advising the government on immigration – is currently gathering evidence to inform the development of its post-Brexit immigration system. The RIBA has been clear that this system needs to continue to embrace and attract people to Britain. As a highly skilled and globalised profession, architecture is particularly exposed to the risks of a bad or ‘no deal’ Brexit; 25 per cent of architects working in the UK are from the EU. When the RIBA surveyed architects about Brexit, their response was overwhelming – 80 per cent said that remaining open to the best talent, from wherever in the world it comes, is vital to the future of the profession.

It’s vital that we get this right and that we grasp the difference between merely ‘allowing’ someone to come to Britain and welcoming them. British architecture has thrived precisely because it has embraced the best and brightest creative talent from around the world. Our practices have benefited from their expertise and their perspectives. The most successful make a virtue of their diversity by building teams that are not only multiskilled but also multicultural, and put that creative energy to work designing groundbreaking buildings on every continent. That is what the often-repeated slogan ‘being open to talent’ really means and it is why Britain has become a global hub of architectural excellence. That’s what is at risk with Brexit.

Extending this expensive, Byzantine system to EU nationals would be a disaster

A common-sense system will not put up unnecessary barriers to businesses recruiting outstanding talent. The fact is that it is already too hard to employ people from outside the EU; practices already tell us that the visa system discourages them from hiring non-EU staff.

Our overriding concern is that the combination of £3,000 in costs and a £30,000 salary requirement to qualify for a work visa under the current system, combined with the weight of administration and process required by the Home Office, will simply put small and medium-sized practices off hiring at the same time as they price people out of the profession.

Simply extending this expensive, Byzantine system to EU nationals would be a disaster. More realistic thresholds and a reduction in the burden of administration are vital, or many more architects will find it impossible to find work in Britain.

This is especially true of the younger talent and recent graduates that are the future of the profession. It simply cannot be right that we continue to encourage international students to come to Britain and spend tens of thousands of pounds to train at our universities only to make it impossible for them to work here once they have qualified. The case for revisiting the short-sighted decision to scrap post-study work visas is, I believe, overwhelming if we want to secure the future pipeline of talent into architecture.

Encouraging international students to spend thousands to train only to make it impossible for them to work cannot be right 

The RIBA will be working hard to ensure that these recommendations are considered seriously by the government. We will continue to make the case for a Brexit that works for our profession and our built environment, from securing access to the talent and investment we need to survive to opening up the new trade opportunities that will support architects to thrive.

As part of this work, we will again be surveying RIBA members about Brexit in November to help inform our work going forwards. I encourage you to share your experience with us when the survey launches.

brexit map europe graphic 3

brexit map europe graphic 3



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