Brexit: our voyage into the unknown

As we head towards the first December general election since 1923, continued political and economic uncertainty has put architects in a state of limbo, making it very difficult for practices to plan for the future, writes RIBA President, Alan Jones.

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he RIBA’s September Future Trends Survey, which monitors business and employment trends affecting the architects’ profession, highlighted a lack of preparation by architecture practices for a no-deal Brexit. More than half (57%) of practices had done no preparation at all and of these, only 5% intended to do so in future. Of course, it is difficult to plan when the outcome is still unclear.

It has been over three years since the referendum, yet we still face the real risk of not having a trade agreement with the EU post-Brexit. In that situation, the UK will be treated as a third-country under World Trade Organisation rules, meaning goods, including construction materials and products, will face tariffs upon entering the UK. We can expect this to push up the cost of development which is detrimental to the wider construction and engineering sector. Continued uncertainty and the fluctuation of the Pound make it difficult to price jobs for practices sourcing products in Euros, and to predict how this will translate into Sterling in the future.

Should a trade deal be struck, and the Pound stabilise, there is still the risk of delays at ports. Many high-quality and high-performing components and materials are not partly or wholly produced in the UK and must be sourced from Europe. As one example, many of the materials needed to construct a low-energy, low-carbon Passivhaus building are only available from the continent. If these products are delayed at the port, it will increase the length and cost of the job.

A significant non-tariff barrier post-Brexit for architectural firms is access to talent. As a member of the EU, the UK benefits from the Mutual Recognition of Professional Qualifications Directive, which means architects with listed qualifications have been able to register and practice across the EU with limited barriers. The RIBA has been working with the Architects Registration Board (ARB), which regulates the profession, to ensure architects who have their qualifications already recognised will continue to do so. In addition, ARB have confirmed that they will be able to continue to register architects with qualifications listed in the directive, although, outside of Ireland, this has not been reciprocated.

International architects from across the globe provide a breadth of knowledge and expertise that supports UK firms providing services across the UK and internationally. Whatever the outcome of the election and Brexit, the UK must ensure that it is a welcoming and desirable place to live, study and work.

Despite the uncertainty and risks, there could be opportunities for the UK post-Brexit. The RIBA and our members have long been advocating for new mutual recognition agreements for professional qualifications outside the EU. International architects that come to the UK from countries from outside the EU predominantly come from the United States and Commonwealth nations – Australia, Canada and New Zealand. Setting up Mutual Recognition Agreements will enable UK practices to recruit more architects from these countries, providing the UK with an even richer set of skills and market experience on which to draw. These new agreements do not need to wait for a fully-fledged trade deal. All that is required is an amendment to the Architects Act and for ARB to be instructed by the UK Government to begin conversations with the relevant regulators in these markets.

RIBA research shows that one in five architectural practices plan to respond to Brexit by exporting more of their services overseas. But many practices are small- or medium-sized business and the costs associated with Visa applications, obtaining local recognition of their qualifications and other fixed costs, present significant challenges. It’s vital that the new Government supports small- and medium-sized businesses to take the first steps to international expansion.

Architecture is a sector that relies on collaboration, international expertise and imports and exports in both goods and services. The RIBA has made it clear that securing a deal with the EU is essential to ensure that goods continue to flow, architects are able to have their qualifications recognised and that they are able to travel freely for projects on the continent.

Whatever the outcome of the upcoming election, continued uncertainty is likely. While the UK’s future relationship with the EU is important, it is imperative that pressing issues facing us today are not neglected. We need to focus on tackling the climate emergency, improving the safety and quality of buildings and spaces and addressing the housing crisis, through the development of vibrant, prosperous communities.

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