Sector - Consultancy

Brexit Could Lead to New Dawn for Talent

Lesley McLeod, CEO of The Association for Project Safety writes about how Brexit could signal a new dawn for home grown construction talent in this latest feature.

It is no secret that, personally, I am a passionate European and that I believe Brexit to be an act of self-harm. To me it can never be the sane choice to leave a group made up of our nearest neighbours and constituting our biggest trading partner. I have never thought it could be credible to have a better deal out of the club then for members in it.

But I am equally aware that, if you aggregate the vote across the whole of the UK, my concerns were not the majority view. So, there is no choice for me – and the members of the Association for Projects Safety [APS] for who I work – but to make the most of things.

And there are potential opportunities.

The most likely could be increasing job opportunities across the construction sector at home. This is especially the case as the government has signalled its hope the UK can build its way out of the worst economic consequences of the Covid19 outbreaks.

This, allied to the continuing need to develop new homes and upgrade our national infrastructure, should see more opportunities for skilled trades and build environmental professionals. The trouble is that these workers are not waiting in the employment wings right now.

There have been years of buying in cheaper labour rather than training home-grown talent. It will take time, money and effort to bring on people with the skills to take the place of European colleagues who may be on their way home to Budapest, Bratislava or Barcelona. And experience is not oven-ready overnight.

Set this against the economic reality that construction is often as an indicator of the wider economy and signs that projects are slowing down – particularly in the previous hot house of London and the South East – and perhaps alarm bells should be starting to ring across the country.

In fairness, I ought to offset this with the caveat that perhaps construction work is just signalling the start of a move away from the major urban centres as we seek a more distanced life post-epidemic. There certainly may be a need to repurpose current unloved, unused and unwanted office space to housing.

But, for the jobs we gain, there may be opportunities lost. The UK must continue to recognise the qualifications of EU construction professionals because it would seem highly unlikely that – without reciprocal arrangements – architects or engineers, gas fitters or electricians will be able to work unfettered across the remaining 26-country block. Not least as there will be restrictions on how long – without the appropriate paperwork – people will be able to stay in an EU country.

And the bureaucracy – either way – won’t come without additional red tape for tax, insurance or medical cover. It cannot be the unlocked revolving door we have enjoyed since we joined the community.

Similar constraints will go for other parts of the supply chain too. Materials approved for use in construction across the UK could help grow home markets but close doors to trade – and business growth – with our closest market.

Financing will also involve more headaches as cross-border banking arrangements look like being affected making everything from opening a personal bank account to raising the dosh for a flagship project more complex and more expensive.

And all of this is just the risks you can see on the surface. There is a separate home-grown hidden Brexit threat in the Internal Market Bill a piece of UK legislation that runs in parallel to work on our withdrawal from the EU.

One of the aims of the Bill is to create – across the devolved administrations – a level playing-field for goods and services. Nationalists see this as a land-grab by the Westminster government and a way of diluting the devolution settlements and powers enjoyed in Cardiff, Stormont and Holyrood. Others are more worried by its practical consequences for construction.

Currently, the regulations currently applied in Derby may demand a higher [or even lower] standard than those in Dundee – or Dungiven or Denbigh. The rules will certainly be different wherever you go. And while I have sympathy with the desire to simplify bureaucracy, making business easier across the countries of our islands, I fear the actual impact on the rules that underpin each and every project, large or small.

There is nothing in the legislation to force up rules and behaviours and every time and cost imperative to see standards fall to the lowest level overall.

I fear – if this is not too European – a Dutch-auction of safety standards with everything chased down to the lowest level. This, particularly for members of my association whose driving force is to cut the risks of accident and ill-health associated with all aspects of construction, is a worry. We feel already that we are swimming against a tide that risks overwhelming safety with considerations of cost, the need for speed and the aspirations of aesthetics.

I started this piece with the intention of being even-handed. Of trying to present both sides of the argument. But I just can’t do it. The more I look at the consequences of Brexit the more I think it is harmful to ordinary people, restricting their freedom of movement and limiting their opportunities while, at the same time, making it more difficult to do business with those nearest to us. I see risks in putting up barriers with Europe and removing restrictions across the UK.

Believe me I want to be proved wrong. And I am not forecasting a apocalypse: we will muddle through – just not as well or as easily. I am sure, for many, they will not miss a step or see any difference.

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