On 23 June, Britons will take to the polls to vote on the country’s membership of the European Union. After the referendum date was announced in February, many began declaring their backing of either the “remain” or “leave” campaign; 197 businesses, including contractors Carillion and Mace, have signed an open letter to The Times supporting the UK’s continued EU membership.
But, what would Brexit look like and how might it affect the UK construction industry?
One of the major issues facing the industry if the UK was to leave is access to labour, without which, many think, the construction industry would collapse. Both skilled and unskilled jobs in the UK’s construction sector are often filled by foreign workers, which are facilitated by a core principle of the EU – the right to free movement. Foreign labour from inside the EU is vital to reducing the industry’s current skills shortage and stabilising the current labour crisis.
Investment may also dry up as re-established trade barriers could prevent other EU members from freely doing business with, and investing in, an independent Britain. If the UK was to leave the biggest trading union on Earth, it would seriously weaken its current position. European manufacturing giant Airbus has already voiced unease about investing in an independent UK.
However, many in the industry believe the price for UK membership in the EU is simply too high, arguing that the UK has lost control and is over-regulated. With 50% of UK legislation now coming from the EU, the shackles that constrict UK construction firms are ones that many SME’s are keen to break free from.
Others see the debate in slightly different terms. Stability is vital and remaining within the EU is the decision that offers the least upheaval. For us, and for this reason, the jury is out. Despite some theoretical benefits the skills shortage is a major issue and it’s not clear that a Brexit would really help the UK building industry. No country has ever withdrawn from the EU before and there is no precedent for how it will affect the way we do business. We echo many others in feeling that, having got our business onto an even keel post-recession, the chance to forge ahead without political interference would be welcome.