Brexit is moving UK from client status into the supply chain

There have been many, and there will be many ‘what Brexit means for …’ articles, blogs and opinions. Here is my take on how I see the impact for the built  environment and sustainability. It is a blog post that I started on June 24th, but with each passing day, hour, a new twist has emerged …

flag_yellow_lowFar from dust settling after the EU Referendum that saw ‘Leave’ gain a slender majority, we are seeing more dust being kicked up from the daily political, financial and environmental developments. What all this means for the built environment, as many organisations are telling me in emails, tweets and statements is unclear and remains to be seen. It is still unbelievable that political and industry organisations and companies did not and still do not really have a plan in the case of an out vote, and what the implications of triggering Article 50 would entail.

What we see however is the UK on the brink of a self inflicted move from client, or framework prime contractor status to supply chain status and all the implications that would bring. No longer would we be setting the trading and governance conditions but having to negotiate, and ultimately comply.

And with the mature supply chain conditions that most in the built environment are now familiar with, this entails, fair, ethical , equitable and environmentally sound practices and governance across an organisation. Practices that are not only limited to the goods or services provided to a client (in this case the EU) but across all operations.

And the pandora’s box of potential implications, a few good but mostly disastrous in the short term, we now face in the built environment include …

A continuation of OJEU – the EU tendering and procurement process. (an Housing Association pre-referendum article foresaw this as a possibility , to ensure open access to contracts as a good ethical and fair trading practice)

Compliance with EU environmental standards, such as air quality and the Near Zero Buildings directive. Although many of the EU environmental issues have, over time been incorporated into e.g. Building Regs, as a government we have fought most EU environmental legislation, particularly air quality regulations. Boris Johnson, described as Trump-Lite in his approach to the environment, has been accused of withholding failing air quality statistics in London schools, hampering any real improvement. Now, to trade with EU it is highly likely that air quality thresholds will be an imposed condition in light of the recent statements from EU officials that they remain committed to protecting health and wellbeing of all European citizens.

Uncertainty and worry questions the free movement of skills, talent and people on which the built environment has thrived. Free movement of skills has been vital for construction on site, in Architectural practices, Environmental consultancies, Universities and other research organisations. Even BIM, which through free movement of IT talent, many of whom based in London and created the innovative IT hub, that has helped us become a BIM world leader. Not surprisingly there are warnings that IT and multi-i organisations will seek more EU centric locations, for example Berlin, relocating away from London and the UK.

Indications are that we will see short and long term price increases in construction materials. 60% of all imported construction materials come from the EU. Exported services will be expected at a lower cost which may prove to be unviable.  Imported timber, increasingly the structural material of choice – will be subject to trade and cost implications This should of course bolster Grown in Britain timber, but that itself may well be subject to wider EU trading implications – as a supply chain would be expected to do so to demonstrate good governance and ecological considerations.

The construction industry is often the barometer for the health of the economy – and hence a prelude for a recession. It requires amongst other factors, strong confidence in a pipeline of work flow. That pipeline had slowed pre referendum, with a number of contracts having Brexit clauses, and now, post referendum in some cases (e.g. infrastructure projects) come to (a temporary) stop. With the value of construction organisations being reduced, so will funds available for innovation, investments in new technologies (digital and BIM) and crucial for the industry, education, training and development.

On a wider macro sustainability level, leaving the EU risks weakening efforts to protect human rights, tackle corruption, environmental destruction and climate change, all which require a collaborative effort with our neighbours. I have already heard “that as FSC is a EU Legislation requirement we can now use unsustainably sourced timber?”

Facing all of these potential implications, never before in the sector have we needed our modern day, mature approaches to improving the built environment. These include lean construction, a diverse and ethical sector, collaboration not silo’d isolation, sound training and development, BIM, and a restorative sustainability approach that is not weakened to doing even less just to reduce the built environments sustainability impact.  

At the same time we need to speed up the incorporation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as the sectors sustainability mission.Chart_of_UN_Sustainable_Development_Goals

Far from taking back control, we may be handing over what control we had as we take a new position within the supply chain. But then … who knows what will occur, if and when and by whom article 50 is ever triggered.

So what now? The Brexit debate has moved from the binary referendum to a complex cocktail of political issues. It is possible we will see a snap election, less likely the called for 2nd referendum, but we will have new leaders of our main parliamentary parties and debates that focus not only the future of the EU but the UK itself. All will have huge impacts for the built environment.

As individuals we have avenues to register our concerns, through social media advocacy, through our institutions and membership organisations, through the call for a 2nd referendum, and as this is now a political issue through MP lobbying.

We should also see a step up in appropriate lobbying from built environment groups – now is not the time to wait and see, now is the time for groups such as RIBA, CIOB, CE, UKGBC, CIBSE, ICE, IEMA etc etc … to mobilise, be proactive and lobby government, potential party leaders and MP’s with responsibilities within the built environment spectrum, to protect our industry and all the wonderful progress made through union with the EU.

This blog is my view of the post referendum uncertainty, an interpretation from experience and knowledge of the sector, but undoubtedly also informed through reading many many articles, blogs and tweets, too many to reference here at the moment, but also worth reading are:

For a US perspective, Lloyd Alter: What impact will Brexit have on green building in Britain?

Understanding Article 50: David Allen Green  This is what sovereignty looks like

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