When British voters opted to quit the European Union, there was a rush of commentary claiming it would have catastrophic consequences for the future of British architecture and design. Now, as the complex and fragile negotiations finally get under way, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) has added another gloomy warning to the catalogue of negative predictions about Britain’s £4.8 billion architecture industry.
RIBA believes that a failure to strike a meaningful Brexit deal could see the industry’s exports slump by nearly a third, and that a disorderly withdrawal from the EU could cut off vital access to creative talent and put the UK’s position as a global hub for the industry at risk.
The RIBA study, Global Talent, Global Reach, is the latest negative outburst over the possible implications of a no deal Brexit for our sector. Earlier this year, our largest player, Foster + Partners, whose projects include London’s Gherkin tower, axed nearly 100 jobs as a result of what it claimed was the uncertainty around major builds.
RIBA is now calling on the Government to take steps to protect Britain’s architecture industry during the coming negotiations.
“Without a Brexit deal that works for UK architecture we risk losing more of our global talent due to increased costs and economic uncertainty,” said Ben Derbyshire, president of Riba.
“A no deal Brexit is not an option; it would be a disaster for UK architecture and our built environment, and the Government must take this option off the table.”
The UK’s architecture sector is seemingly particularly exposed to the impact of trade and border changes, claim RIBA, who want to see a post-Brexit immigration system that allows access to talent worldwide, continued mutual recognition of qualifications across the EU and market access without non-tariff barriers.
Less prominent in the report, however, is an admission that, regardless of Brexit, there is also considerable potential for growth from new trade agreements outside the EU – for instance, deals have been struck this year with the likes of China, the US, India and the United Arab Emirates estimated to be worth at least £54 million.
It’s worth remembering that British architecture firms were amongst the best and most innovative in the world long before the arrival of the European Union, so there’s no logic in assuming that our exit will prevent us from continuing to conduct our work across Europe.
Whatever the political barriers, business always finds a way, and the best skills will always be in demand regardless of borders.
The influential think tank Economists for Free Trade would certainly take issue with the RIBA position. The 16-strong group of Eurosceptic economists recently produced their own analysis, The Budget for Brexit, in which they think our exit could see actually the UK economy boosted by some £65bn a year, through tax cuts and spending increases.
Whatever the economic consequences, Brexit will inevitably throw a spotlight on home priorities, and architecture will feature prominently – from the need for new housing, to hospitals and care facilities, infrastructure projects and new industrial buildings. There’s even talk already of a reversal of the savage Beeching cuts that prematurely destroyed our rail network and isolated countless communities.
One of the severest critics of Beeching was the poet John Betjeman, who also knew a thing or two about the stature and enduring quality of British architecture. One only has to look at the history and iconography of St Pancras station, a building which would have been demolished but for the campaigning of Betjeman, to see that both architecture and commerce are way above trivial considerations like international borders and trade agreements. The grandiose structure was Britain’s link to Europe long before the EU and, now that we’re exiting, no-one’s suggesting that the Eurostars will no longer run.
Yes business will always find a way, whatever the border posts.
It’s probably too early to talk of a post-Brexit renaissance of distinctly British architectural styles, or a new English idyll such a Betjeman lauded in the creation of Metro-land, but Brexit ought to inspire us all to make a serious re-examination and resuscitation of home architecture, and the unique and innovative projects with which this country has led the world for so many generations.