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Brexit will deny UK architects access to an untapped market

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Just 4 per cent of UK practices’ turnover came from EU countries in 2014. Brexit will make it even harder to exploit this market, says Adriana Vega of PDP London

Adriana Vega of PDP

Adriana Vega of PDP

Adriana Vega of PDP

In the run up to the referendum, political campaigning focused on the monetary implications of EU membership, failing to reveal the qualitative benefits of commercial and legislative relationships and their indirect contribution to the economy. In the case of the construction industry free movement of people, the single market and harmonised standards have been key to ensuring the UK’s global competitiveness. 

The Leave campaign voiced the view that open borders were a threat to the UK domestic job market. However, media reports and industry bodies have warned that skill shortages, heightened by a recent increase in construction, are holding back the UK’s economic performance. Closing Britain’s borders to skilled migrants would accentuate this, placing UK architectural practices at a disadvantage compared with European practices who can access a wider pool of talent.

Leaving the EU will also mean closing borders to the 8 per cent of UK-born architects employed on the continent. And it would restrict opportunities for others to gain experience at leading European practices. The EU’s Professional Qualifications Directive allows EU-qualified architects to register and practise in the UK without requiring specific recognition of qualifications – and vice versa for UK architects in Europe. Although equivalence could be sought through the ARB-prescribed examination, this route would bring new bureaucratic processes for obtaining work permits, adding costs and time; it would deter UK practices from employing talented overseas individuals; and ultimately limit the development and competitiveness of Britain’s architectural industries.

While UK public spending has decreased in recent years, the Single Market Act allowed the construction industry to seek alternative opportunities within the EU market worth an estimated €1,664 billion in 2013. This is still a largely untapped market, with other EU countries only accounting for 3.9 per cent of UK practices’ turnover in 2014 (5.4 per cent for outside Europe). Restricting access to the market, along with increased regulation and limited cross-border activity, will significantly curtail the UK’s ability to exploit the full value of the EU’s architectural services market – a real step back for the industry.

Standards for construction products are developed by the industry to ensure interoperability and safety, reduce costs and facilitate companies’ integration in the value chain. Most British Standards have incorporated EU standards (BS EN). Leaving the EU does not mean ceasing to be bound by EU directives and standards. As three-quarters of construction products are destined for the EU market, the UK industry needs to continue adopting these standards or manufacture products bearing multiple standards. This could entail additional testing, higher costs and reduced competitiveness for construction product manufacturing industries.

Being part of the EU allowed the UK to be at the forefront of standardisation, ensuring that local construction practices and needs were considered. Brexit means the UK will rely on third parties negotiating on its behalf. In addition, product procurement will become more expensive and time consuming. Currently, as standards are harmonised, similarities can be drawn between for example EN, DIN and BS standards. As a result, construction products that become expensive or scarce can be easily replaced with other European options with equivalent standards.

While Brexit’s implications are not yet clear, it is evident that a very strong link between the UK and the EU construction industries will remain. The sector will have to negotiate hard with Brussels to safeguard the benefits previously gained from EU membership. As architects, we should be actively involved by participating in open forums to express our views objectively. We should empower architects’ representatives to approach those negotiating on our behalf. We should not let the Brexit political agendas divide the profession and obscure the potential to maintain good collaboration with the EU.

We practise in challenging times. Let’s take this opportunity to reconsider how we work together to produce great and responsible architecture now and for future generations.

Adriana Vega is a project architect at PDP London

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