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With Brexit looming, architects need government’s backing to boost exports

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It is now vital that the Department for International Trade supports architects working internationally, writes the RIBA’s Alan Vallance

Architecture is one of Britain’s most visible creative exports. From Stanton Williams’ Musée d’Arts de Nantes in France, to Foster + Partners’ Xiao Jing Wan University campus in China, the ground-breaking, iconic work done by British architects on every continent is the profession’s calling card to the wider world and has helped make British architecture a global success story.

The RIBA’s recent research report Global Talent, Global Reach showed that architecture contributes £1.5 billion to the UK economy every year through direct and indirect exports, far outstripping any other country in Europe. This global reach, which has fuelled the UK profession’s prominence around the world, is now at risk as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.

Question marks remain over everything from how practices will continue to access the skills they need to win work at home and abroad, to the terms on which we will be able to trade globally. And, with just five months until the government intends to sign off its final Brexit deal, the uncertainty over what it will look like appears to stretch all the way to the Cabinet.

If that deal not only fails to reduce the regulatory barriers than can make working overseas a significant challenge, but also puts up new barriers between the UK and the European Union, it’s hard to see how British architecture’s pre-eminent position can be maintained.

For architects, one of the biggest such barriers is getting recognition of their qualifications around the world. We have enjoyed mutual recognition of professional qualifications with the rest of the EU for years – allowing architects to move across borders and practise their occupation or provide services abroad, and enabling UK practices to benefit from the best architectural talent in Europe. This has been an essential enabler of British architecture’s success and losing this vital provision would severely limit the ability of British practices to compete on the world stage.

Losing this vital provision would severely limit the ability of British practices to compete on the world stage

The lack of mutual recognition agreements worldwide prevents architects and other professionals from practising around the world on the strength of their UK qualification and can force them to take local examinations before working.

I know from my own experience – emigrating to Australia in 1991 as a UK chartered accountant and having to re-qualify there – how expensive, time-consuming and burdensome this can be, and it doubtlessly puts many professionals off from doing the same. We should be looking to extend the scope of mutual recognition, as the RIBA has called for, not risking the existing agreement we enjoy within Europe.

The government’s vision of an outward-looking, free-trading ‘Global Britain’ chimes with the values and horizons of architects, who are already winning work and exporting their talent to the biggest emerging markets in the world. But this has often been despite an approach to trade support that has failed to help architects to expand internationally.

In addition to retaining mutual recognition and removing regulatory barriers to trade, if this vision is to be achieved, ‘trade support’ needs to mean more than ministerial visits and trade missions. This transactional, goods-focused approach hasn’t done enough to support architects and Britain’s other service sector businesses get their feet into global markets.

These businesses make up 80 per cent of our economy yet less than half of our exports. If ‘Global Britain’ is to mean anything beyond a slogan, it’s vital that the Department for International Trade (DIT) gets serious about supporting Britain’s service sector to export in its forthcoming Export Strategy.

Feedback from RIBA members suggests how this can be achieved. Architects wants to see a far more expansive approach to commercial diplomacy, of the kind that the most successful trading nations enjoy – long-term, strategic campaigns to build a global market for their country’s expertise.

Architecture, an area Britain in which stands as a world-leader, would benefit significantly from this kind of strategic approach. As the developing world continues to urbanise at a breathtaking pace, the experience and skills architects have to offer in urban design, placemaking and sustainable architecture will become more and more in demand. A long-term strategy to maximise the sector’s export potential could therefore yield significant benefits for the British economy.

Our research shows how significant the benefits could be; at present, exporting is primarily the reserve of larger practices, while smaller and medium-sized practices frequently struggle to raise the finance and develop the contacts they need to take the first steps to international expansion.

A single trade mission won’t open the door; practices need better market intelligence and introductions to potential partners and clients to begin building the relationships that lead to winning work.

With 90 per cent of UK architecture practices being SMEs, it is vital to ensure that the benefits of international work are available to all, and 40 per cent of the architects we spoke to in our recent Brexit survey told us that improving and expanding the financial support for practices looking to expand into new markets via UK Export Finance was essential to help them grow internationally.

Also crucial to ensuring that smaller practices can play their part in boosting architectural exports is improving the in-country support provided by British embassies and consulates – whether with dispute resolution and non-payment, or navigating contractual challenges in unfamiliar markets.

The DIT has a presence in 108 countries across the world and is uniquely placed to provide this support; ensuring the department has the resources, skills and knowledge in-country to support sectors like ours is essential.

These measures will help open up new opportunities in new markets for British architects and enable many more practices to make the most of opportunities for international expansion.

Despite the risks of Brexit, Britain remains, for now, the gold standard for excellence in architecture and the built environment, and the rest of the creative industries, around the world. Ensuring that this pre-eminence is protected as we leave the EU and that our members can continue to compete, collaborate and innovate in an increasingly global marketplace is vital if the promise of a global Britain is to be achieved.

Alan Vallance is chief executive of the RIBA

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