Brexit fears grow as RICS says UK construction could lose 175,000 EU workers

Industry concerns over Brexit intensified today as new figures from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) revealed that the UK construction industry could lose almost 200,000 EU workers - or 8% of the sector’s workforce - should Britain lose access to the single market, putting some of the country’s biggest infrastructure and construction projects under threat.

The figures back up research conducted by Arcadis at the end of last year which suggested that British construction would lose out on almost 215,000 workers from house building and infrastructure in the event of a ‘hard’ Brexit. Even a ‘soft’ Brexit would see the industry missing out on as many as 135,000 workers, said Arcadis.

RICS’s latest quarterly survey of the industry, conducted during the last three months of 2016, revealed that 30% of construction professionals said hiring non-UK workers was important to the success of their business. The companies most affected are those working on big projects or based in the south-east of England.

According to RICS, if the UK loses access to the single market post-Brexit, around 176,500 jobs could be under threat and with the industry already facing skills shortages, RICS has warned the government that losing so many jobs will jeopardise its predicted £500bn project pipeline. RICS has also cautioned the government that in order for Brexit to succeed, it is essential to secure continued access to the EU single market or to put alternative plans in place to safeguard the future of the property and construction sectors in the UK.

While some overseas professionals, such as ballet dancers, are regarded as critical by the UK government, and are therefore prioritised during the visa application process, construction professions have not yet been added to the UK Shortage Occupations List. RICS says that the situation must be addressed as a priority.

Commenting on the figures, Jeremy Blackburn, head of policy at RICS, said: “These figures reveal that the UK construction industry is currently dependent on thousands of EU workers. It is in all our interests that we make a success of Brexit, but a loss of access to the single market, has the potential to slowly bring the UK’s £500bn infrastructure pipeline to a standstill. That means that unless access to the single market is secured or alternative plans are put in place, we won’t be able to create the infrastructure needed to enable our cities to compete on a global stage.”

Blackburn said that a simple first step would be to ensure that construction professions, such as quantity surveyors, feature on the 'UK Shortage Occupations List'. He also said that it was important also to grow the domestic skills base to ensure that the construction and property industry was more resilient to future change to better withstand the impact of any future political or economic shocks.

The construction sector has been gaining ground since the financial crisis, but recent industry surveys have shown signs of a potential slowdown even before Brexit is triggered and the budget changes come into force. Construction output in January was down 0.4% month on month and new orders for the final three months of 2016 fell by 2.8%.

Continuing uncertainty over Brexit, as revealed in the RICS survey, is not what the industry or the government needs when infrastructure is being seen as a crucial economic driver that can help rebalance the economy. The industry will be looking for the government to act positively by putting plans in place to safeguard the future of the property and construction sectors in the UK. 

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