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The government’s new message to architects: your country needs you

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As Brexit negotiations begin, the Department for International Trade will be showing off UK export architecture – and architects will need the DIT to secure favourable free trade agreements

Before MIPIM 2017 finally sinks into the recesses of our memories, it is worth recalling one striking development – the appearance of a separate British government pavilion alongside the familiar ones of the cities and the regions.

What a difference Brexit has made. Only recently, in the face of austerity and the press of other priorities, the government had been running down the assistance it gave to architects, and perhaps other players in the built environment, to support their export efforts. Now they are back in force. The export effort is, after all, critical to national success. However, the government has a rather tricky task in selling the message. Hoisting the flag of free trade, having decided to withdraw from the only functioning, comprehensive, multilateral free trade arrangement the world has ever known, needs dexterity – not to mention a whole new set of skills.

The government reports that the prime minister is overwhelmed with requests from countries keen to get us to open our markets to them and to their citizens. For architects, the question is how best to make sure that their own requests for the opening up of markets overseas receive priority.

Larger practices already enjoy considerable success in exporting and many firms based in the UK architectural hub already enjoy world renown. So, leaving aside replacing all the free trade agreements the UK will be losing by virtue of leaving the EU and which may to some extent be supporting existing export efforts, the question is what support architects now actually need from the Department for International Trade (DIT).

For smaller firms in particular, many of who have international aspirations which may or may not be realistic, some effort is needed to determine how much of what is required is simply information about the many challenges involved in working abroad: local regulations, recognition of qualifications, local construction practices, contractual arrangements, local culture and so on. This is very different from identifying obstacles to business of the kind which might be removed through a free trade agreement. Although there may be common issues which need to be addressed, the requirements for each different country will vary and will be very specific.

Mipim 130317  uk dti.jpg

Mipim 130317 uk dti.jpg

Source: John McElgunn

Advertising for the British pavilion at MIPIM

So there is a lot to be done before action can take place which will make a difference, and the benefits to be potentially obtained from the new freedom to enter into UK-specific free trade agreements (which is the prize for leaving the EU single market) can be secured. The profession will need to support the RIBA in putting into place a process to identify what is needed in each jurisdiction, whether for inclusion in a free trade agreement or simply in terms of other support. The DIT will need to know in precise terms what is needed for each jurisdiction and, crucially, what the relative priority is and what the costs would be of failing to achieve a good outcome in each country.

The DIT is starting almost from scratch in negotiating free trade agreements and other industries will also be pressing their case for particular deals in particular jurisdictions. So the profession will need to provide the resources required to make sure its voice is heard in the right place at the right time with the right force.

David Green is a director of Belsize Architects

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