MARCH 2017

As a reluctant Brexiter (I voted Remain) I have nonetheless received a surprising level of indignation from other Remainers over my ‘not-quite-bleak-enough’ assessment of the situation. To be honest, I’m glad that Theresa May is triggering Article 50 – not because I’m glad about Brexit and not because I’m glad about the lack of guarantees for EU citizens in this country – but because it has long been clear that May was not bluffing – and, when something unpleasant has to happen, it’s often better if it happens quickly.

I also have some sympathy for her situation. I do think it’s possible to underestimate how ‘outrageous’ it might have looked if she hadn’t (fairly rapidly) followed through on the Referendum: there may be panic on the streets of London but the uproar on the streets of Humberside might have been worse. Bluntly, the Referendum very likely never should have happened but, since it did, it would have been shocking not to go through with it in a timely fashion. And here isn’t the place to debate how well the voters understood the issues or were misled (one could say that about every election, but one rarely does unless one is unhappy with the outcome!).

My stance is this – it’s happening, and now that it’s happening, can we not try to be positive? After all, are we absolutely certain that this will inevitably lead to a terrible demise? What if there are indeed positives in it? Of course, my focus is always on the construction, property and built environment industries, and Building magazine reported last month on the industry’s wish list for a ‘happy’ (or happier...amicable, if you will) Brexit: these being key skills, trade agreements and the OJEU question. 

The latter concerns me the least: there is a strong consensus that procurement regulations are unlikely to drastically alter – even a return to WTO regs would not cause major changes. Architects concur - as Robert Sakula of Ash Sakula puts it “If I thought Brexit would actually make any difference, it might turn me into a Brexiteer. But actually, the way Britain has embraced these absurdities of procurement (more, one is told, than other EU countries), and spent huge amounts of money on hopelessly clunky web portals...means that I don’t believe Brexit would change anything.”

As for trade agreements, it is true that a hefty body of EU-wide acceptance on standards has been built up through trust over the years and I do share concerns about this – but on this our hands are currently tied. 

As for skills – this brings me back to hoping for a more positive view. Technically not related, since it was ‘on the agenda’ before the Referendum was held, it is still fair to say that Brexit might in some ways aid the rebalancing of the economy, including the Northern Powerhouse and the ‘northshoring movement.’ Is it too controversial to suggest that Brexit might make us focus better on indigenous talent? After all, there is an irony in the fact that Brexit is distasteful to many who, for very different reasons, have nonetheless themselves been calling for more of a local rather than global focus – the leading Fund Manager Gervais Williams points to this in his own work, including his recent book The Retreat of Globalisation: the fact that the ‘Slow Movement’ ironically had similar aims – staying closer to home, reducing air miles and so on. Perhaps Brexit will encourage us to repave our own back yard – and with local young talent? Brought up in Blackpool, my own father was a flagger, my Grandfather a bricklayer and my uncles joiners and plasterers – is the lack of indigenous skills today not something to question in its own right?

The skills crisis might then actually be a wake-up call as to the lack of uptake amongst local youngsters into the building trade. Institutions like Leeds College of Building do fantastic work - but could we do even more to improve perceptions of the construction industry, or for example to encourage young women into construction? And both the Farmer Review and the Housing White paper make much of the revisions needed to our building industry – so where youngsters may not be tempted onto actual building sites (let’s face it the one thing the EU has that we don’t is less rain!) surely we can begin to encourage local youngsters into new opportunities such as offsite construction?

I am not saying that I am beaming with joy about Brexit, but what’s done is done, and whilst this is not what many of us wanted, might it now be time to conceive of being a little more Trigger Happy?