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Construction industry must work to create a sector-wide voice to deal with Brexit challenges, urge industry chiefs

Chartered Institute of Building

5 min read Partner content

Speaking at a Labour party conference fringe event, senior figures from the construction industry encouraged the creation of single industry voice to help deal with challenges from Brexit. 

Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy Chi Onwurah opened a panel discussion alongside a former Minister, and senior figures from professional bodies within the construction sector. The packed fringe event at Labour party conference sought to investigate the challenges facing the construction industry in the wake of the Brexit vote, and establish how industry and Government could work better together.

The event was sponsored by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), and the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)

“The construction sector serves as a vital reflection of the wider economy,” reflected Chi Onwurah.

“The professional bodies represented here play a key role in driving the professionalisation of the construction industry; in working towards closing the productivity gap, and in investing in new technology.”

Touching on concerns raised about Brexit and its impact on the construction industry, Ms Onwurah stated: “Labour have set out that we are committed to a jobs first Brexit and the construction industry is an important part of that.”

She continued, “A good Brexit for the construction industry is one which retains the advantages that we have now, in terms of access to talent, and access to funding. One which shows that the UK is open for international investment, and a fully-fledged player in the global community.”

The impact of Brexit on the construction sector was one of the key themes of the discussion with former Minister for Construction Nick Raynsford echoing similar concerns.

“British professional companies involved in engineering, architecture and design are world leaders… and they bring a lot of people into the UK with great skills and abilities.”

“Anything which damages that movement and the confidence of people from the EU or elsewhere to be able to stay or remain in the UK and contribute to this very successful part of the construction industry, would be an absolute tragedy.”

Ben Derbyshire, President of RIBA, highlighted that 25% of architects in the UK are EU nationals, and this figure rises to 35-40% in some practices in London. He mirrored the comments of the other panellists with worries about the lack of certainty over the fate of EU nationals, and the impact it was having on their members.

“Unfortunately, people are already starting to drift away because of the uncertainty and our practices are all suffering from the haemorrhaging of that vital talent.”

This prompted RIBA to write a letter to Housing Minister Alok Sharma, warning him: ‘If you want to deliver on the housing promises to the nation, then you’ve got to enable these people to feel confident and allow them to remain in the UK in perpetuity.”

Charles Egbu, Vice President of the CIOB, shared similar concerns, highlighting that Brexit could have significant effects on the future of the construction industry for decades to come.

“If we look at the construction industry in the next 20-30 years…some of the things that will allow us to improve our productivity will be technology and innovation - the Internet of Things, Building Information Modelling (BIM) and how we deal with big data.”

“Anything that is going to impair the funding that comes through Europe, and the exchange of ideas, is likely to be detrimental to the course of construction in the next 30 years.”

“My plea is that Government be cognisant of these issues as they undertake their discussions.”

However, Geoff White, Interim Head of UK External Affairs at RICS, argued that Brexit provided the construction industry with huge opportunities.

“It is a driver for us to get our act together… the Government has always wanted there to be one voice from the construction sector.”

“If we can arrange a sector deal that will match the same sort of association that the aerospace and the automotive sectors have with Government then that will a great advantage to us…and Brexit could be the driver of that.”

Developing a sector-wide voice for the construction industry was viewed by the panel as an opportunity to develop a better relationship with Government, but Nick Raynsford remained hesitant.

“The industry doesn’t understand Government very well, and Government doesn’t understand the industry very well.”

“If the construction industry wants to have a similar relationship with Government as the aerospace or automotive sectors have, they are going to need to work very hard at it.”

The election of the new Metro Mayors raised an interesting dynamic, with the panel claiming that it provided an opportunity for more meaningful communication between the industry and policy makers. Ben Derbyshire believed recent projects in Manchester, following the election of Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, demonstrated the opportunity for a more holistic approach to construction policy.

Ultimately, Charles Egbu concluded that developing a single voice for the construction sector was hampered due to the heterogenous nature of the industry, but that it was a challenge that must be met.

“The point must be made; the construction industry needs to look inward to see whether we are actually speaking with one voice. It is something we need to ensure we are doing, and we are working on it. “

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