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Derbyshire on Brexit: A bitter pill to swallow – and an opportunity

Ben derbyshire wide shot ac
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With only a year to go until the UK withdraws from the EU, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire says what he believes architects still need to do to make Brexit work for the profession

For better or worse, it looks highly likely that in 12 months’ time the UK will have ceased to be a member of the European Union. For some this is grounds for celebration, for others a source of anxiety. As RIBA president, my primary concern is ensuring we manage the impact of this seismic shift on our members by getting the best deal possible for architects.

Politicians are apt to deploy those familiar feel-good expressions such as every cloud has a silver lining or never let a good crisis go to waste, whenever we feel daunted by the prospect of substantial change ahead. But reassuring words just are not enough in this case, and we have been working hard at RIBA to make sure the negotiators fully understand the implications of Brexit as it affects the profession.

What sets the Brexit debate apart from the other periods of uncertainty is the fact that this isn’t something that is sneaking up on us. When the clock strikes 11pm on 29 March 2019 we will have had nearly three years to prepare, and we will have nobody but ourselves to blame if the negotiations fail to create the right decisions for us to thrive.

Brexit isn’t sneaking up on us

Now is not the time to quarrel about Brexit; we all have our opinions on the outcome of the 2016 EU referendum. What matters now is the growing urgency for action to address the concerns that Brexit has thrown up within this country. What is at risk is far too precious for us to be complacent; we have one year to go and we need to make this time count.

We have heard the views of architects and we know the profession is uncertain about the future. Sixty per cent of EU architects in the UK are considering leaving – alarming news given that 86 per cent of RIBA members identified the ability to attract global talent as important to the success of UK architecture. Our clients are nervous too – over 60 per cent of RIBA members reported projects having been put on hold, while nearly half have seen projects cancelled since the referendum result.

This month, the RIBA published a set of priorities for the final stages of Brexit negotiations. We’ve been working closely with politicians and civil servants to set out how this ambitious agenda can be delivered. What we have handed the government is not a wish-list. It is a detailed, practical and achievable agenda for protecting and improving the things which have made the UK a global leader in architecture and enabled architects in this country to grow their businesses.

UK architects need to know the terms on which they will be doing business

From continued access to European markets, to trade deals which open up new markets, architects in the UK need to know the terms on which they will be doing business. We’ve been encouraged by the support we’ve seen for continuing and expanding the mutual recognition of qualifications, but that will be of limited value if we do not radically improve the effectiveness and efficiency of our migration system.

In the coming months, the UK Government faces a choice. It can fudge the hard questions and leave people unsure about what the future holds, or it can sit down and set out detailed proposals on migration, standards, qualifications and trade terms. As we saw in the process of agreeing the 21-month transition period, some or all of these decisions will prove unpopular, but without certainty on these key issues, all bets on the future of our profession are off: we will find ourselves in a crisis with few of the tools we need to effect change.

There is an alternative though. I’d urge you to read the RIBA’s Global By Design 2018 document. The right decisions like directing the ARB to start negotiating new Mutual Recognition of Qualification arrangements and opening up alternative paths to qualification are needed not soon, but now.

We won’t undo the significant damage that Brexit has done to the UK’s reputation for stability overnight, but if our politicians can set out a credible pathway to help the UK regain our standing and open new markets then maybe more of us will be able to help make those silver linings a reality.

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