The leaders of four professional bodies have written to Brexit minister David Davis saying that the UK’s construction skills crisis could severely worsen if the government does not take steps to ensure access to a skilled workforce during its EU departure negotiations.
The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) and the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) have joined forces to spell out the implications of any anti-immigration tendencies that might now be impelling the government.
They also spell out other ways in which the UK construction industry has heavily benefited from membership of the European Union.
They are not entirely negative, however, telling the secretary of state that: “Leaving the EU could present a great opportunity for the UK, but it should not be associated with a drive to the bottom in the environmental and building standards which future generations will live with”.
In their letter, the institutes detail six priorities that they hope will minimise the damage that they fear the government may now inflict as a result of the referendum outcome. The priorities are:
1. Access to skills
The free movement of labour within the EU has been vital to the growth and flexibility of the construction sector. Access to a skilled workforce of the highest quality combined with a focus on developing the next generation of home-grown talent are critical to ensure we can build the homes businesses and infrastructure we need to compete globally.
We therefore urge the Government to explore options and approaches to ensure that this access is not impeded to the detriment of the built environment.
2. Common strands
We believe that the UK has much to gain from pursuing an approach that makes it easier to do business with trading partners new and old. Access to markets in the EU and around the world has transformed the UK construction sector. The mutual recognition of qualifications and the development of common technical standards have reduced the barriers our members face working abroad.
Reducing tariffs and harmonising standards have helped UK firms of all sizes expand to Europe and beyond. These common approaches have also meant that UK businesses can support best-practice in environmental and product standards, supporting efforts on global issues such as climate change. It is imperative that governments in the UK protect and promote the UK’s role as a leader in environmental and consumer protection standards.
3. Research excellence
Our members have benefitted from the collaborative research that the EU has enabled and promoted. Our future success depends on maintaining these relationships, while forging new ties with research organisations around the world.
In addition the continued success of our world class university courses training our young people in the built environment is essential to the underpinning of research and the continued supply of labour for construction and allied activities.
4. Infrastructure investment
The UK’s global competitiveness will be hampered unless we do more to tackle the major infrastructure challenges we face. With a housing crisis, and growing concerns around energy, telecoms, road, rail and airport capacity, the governments in the UK must seek and entice prospective investors to consider infrastructure of all kinds.
Providing confidence to the construction industry through infrastructure funding and development will provide stability during a period of uncertainty and ensure that the UK is well-placed to take advantage of growth opportunities in the future.
5. Devolution commitment
The referendum has brought divide between the different parts of the UK into sharp focus. Our organisations welcome the recent commitment to continuing the Northern Powerhouse and we believe that further devolution from Whitehall should be a key priority for the UK government as powers move from the European Commission.
Devolution will enable a rebalancing of the economy so that all parts of the UK can benefit from any new opportunities arising from the UK’s new relationship with the European Union, and is an effective way of ensuring infrastructure spending is efficient, timely, coordinated and accountable.
6. Community development
Through the extensive skills and experience of our members we are best-placed to advise on how the built environment can unlock new opportunities and combat existing challenges, as well as provide places for people to live, work and play.
RICS president Amanda Clack said: “Recent RICS figures have shown that we are in the grip of our worst construction skills crisis in almost 20 years. There is a real concern within our industry that if access to a skilled workforce is further restricted, Britain could stop building. My colleagues and I would urge Government to keep this at the front of their minds when they come to negotiate our withdrawal from the EU.
“We know that infrastructure and construction investment is key to Britain’s economic growth. The uncertainty that immediately followed the referendum outcome led to decline in economic growth, increased market volatility and a reduction in UK infrastructure investment.
“While the initial post-Brexit slump appears to have stabilised, it is important that the Government focuses on maintaining infrastructure and construction investment leading up to and after Brexit, ensuring the right conditions are in place to attract infrastructure investors in all sectors across the UK. As we approach an unprecedented period of uncertainty, it is fundamental the government prioritises infrastructure and it remains at the forefront of maintaining a strong economy.”