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No workforce, no materials: is it time to panic about Brexit yet?

Christine Murray
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With skills and material shortages, growing labour costs and a talent drought in sight, UK construction needs a contingency plan, writes Christine Murray

Empty building site shutterstock

Empty building site shutterstock

Headlines this week reveal the NHS is making contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit to secure staff and medication; UK construction needs to do the same, but how to prepare for the unknown? The uncertainty is maddening. With the cliff-edge in sight, the whole industry is facing the loss – in just eight months’ time – of an already dwindling European migrant workforce and friction-free access to building materials. 

What does this mean if you’ve got a project on site in 2019? Do you need to use fewer European products, or suggest your contractor stocks up before March? A 2010 study from the Department for Business Skills and Innovation estimated that 64 per cent of building materials are imported from the EU. And according to a government report published last month, in excess of £10 billion of construction materials came from the EU last year – more than three times what we import from China. You might ask manufacturers now if they anticipate any delays should the port of Dover seize up. 

How exactly are we expected to build the housing so sorely needed without builders, let alone bricks?

And how exactly are we expected to build the housing so sorely needed without builders, let alone bricks? In London, 28 per cent of construction workers are from the EU, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics. What will happen on site, and how will it affect costs? Sitting next to Teresa Borsuk of PTE architects at the AJ100, I heard worrying tales of how skill shortages are already having an impact on sites, from a lack of proper brickies to a high churn of dry-liners. 

Meanwhile, at a time of year that usually sees a recruitment frenzy off the back of the student shows, practices such as Fosters are speaking out about the prospect of a talent drought in architecture. It’s no longer guaranteed that UK-based practices can cherry-pick the world’s brightest straight from architecture school. Onerous Tier 2 visa applications have made it near impossible to obtain working permits for graduates from outside the EU who earn less than £50,000 – a situation that Brexit is bound to make worse.

The ARB has already reported a 25 per cent drop in European architects seeking to be accredited in the UK. At Allies and Morrison, Arup and ORMS, roughly a third of the workforce hail from the EU. Combine visa doldrums with the weakened pound, low wages and high living costs, and London is quite frankly a hard sell. 

The RIBA has not been silent on this issue, but no one is listening. And let’s face it, aside from shifting your headquarters – something Fosters has threatened – there’s not much you can do to prepare until the implications of Brexit become clearer.

But you can make your voices heard – as the RIBA and architects Make, Aecom and Arup did in an open letter to Theresa May this week, urging the PM to keep access to EU workers open. Write to your MP and use social media. Tell the government that it’s fine and well for them to promote British architecture is a thriving export industry – but the profession can’t succeed abroad if they can’t thrive at home.

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