When it comes to Brexit, the only thing everyone can agree on is that no one can agree on exactly what will happen next.
There is little doubt, however, that the property sector could face new challenges once the UK has left the EU. The construction industry – characterised by an ageing population and a heavy reliance on EU workers and facing significant challenges on modernisation – is particularly likely to feel the ripples of any deal made in Brussels.
‘Building Britain’s Future? The construction workforce after Brexit’, a recent report jointly sponsored by Landsec and the BPF and published by thinktank IPPR, found that if the UK extended a non-EU visa system to EU nationals, just 7% of EU-born construction employees would be eligible to work in the UK.
The report offers a number of solutions: an immediate guarantee of the rights of existing EU nationals to remain and work in the UK, a transitionary period of at least five years for EU nationals and the introduction of a ‘Highly Trusted Sponsor Scheme’. All three should be considered in detail ahead of a final deal being struck.
Brexit coincides with a difficult period for the construction industry more generally, as shown by contracting giant Carillion going into liquidation.
In addition to the financial challenges Carillion’s collapse has illustrated, this is an industry where two in five workers will retire in the next 20 years and modernisation has been slow to revolutionise day-to-day working practices.
“Two out of five workers will retire in the next 20 years”
As Brexit negotiations progress, we as an industry should think innovatively about how to ensure the construction sector is not compromised. At Landsec, we are trying to play our part through our community employment programme, which has helped more than 500 of the people furthest from employment back into work within the construction industry, as well as scaffolding and dry lining academies we have set up at Brixton Prison.
Impact beyond construction
These initiatives make a huge difference to the lives of the individuals they reach – and to their employers, who are able to hire people with the right skills for the job. This approach to remedying the problems identified in the report is set to become more and more important in the months to come.
Without a carefully considered solution in place, it is clear the construction industry could be fundamentally compromised – and this could have far-reaching consequences. Building could become less financially viable due to price increases as a result of labour and skills shortages. This would affect not just the commercial office market, but also the construction of homes, schools, hospitals and infrastructure.
The impact that the construction industry has across our society is not limited to bricks and mortar – it also affects our services and infrastructure. So it’s in all our interests to ensure that the construction industry is not left struggling in a post-Brexit world. We all have a duty to help drive upskilling and training, to ensure that modernisation is embraced and to highlight the importance of continued migration.
Although it is not for Landsec to dictate government or industry policy, I’m hopeful that by starting this debate now, we’ve identified an opportunity to mitigate some of the risks to the construction sector. As the largest listed commercial property company in the UK, we know it’s vital that the construction sector is able to thrive after Brexit. If migration is halted overnight, skilled workers are not replaced after retirement and we don’t keep up with the pace of the modern world, then we will all feel the consequences.
Colette O’Shea is managing director of the London portfolio at Landsec