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Shadows in a Brexit mist

Ben Derbyshire

A few certainties hold as we feel our way through Brexit, and it’s important that we hang onto them

At the time of writing, we are just days away from the date we were repeatedly assured that the UK would leave the European Union, but the uncertainty continues.  

This is not just damaging for business confidence. Brexit has become the densest of fogs, veiling the palpable and real concerns faced by people across the country – such as the housing crisis, crises of community, climate change and sustainability, and halting significant action from being taken by politicians and policy makers – who are by accident or design being taken away from thinking about the critical issues to play to the gallery on Brexit.

There are a few things that I do feel confident about stating, even at this uneasy juncture. First, it is important that we maintain a positive relationship with Europe. Many politicians on all sides of the debate have been keen to stress that leaving the EU does not amount to breaking off contact relationships with the Continent. If they are serious on this point, the quality of the conversation must get much, much better. We are all used to having difficult conversations in our daily lives, and we mostly manage this without the sort of mud-slinging that we’ve seen in recent months. Neither the UK or EU will benefit from putting at risk our continued cultural and intellectual exchange, regardless of what is happening on the political stage.

Secondly, we need to ensure that our European colleagues want to stay in the UK. I have been told by European architects that they simply do not feel as welcome here as they did before the referendum. Anecdotally, practices are raising the drop-off in applications from EU citizens. This is not an acceptable situation, and it is one that could be avoided if leaders stop getting so squeamish about having a sensible, evidence-led conversation about immigration.

We need to ensure that our European colleagues want to stay in the UK

Thirdly, politicians need to take a much more radical approach to the built ­environment in this country. Much of the conversation around the referendum centred on overburdened infrastructure and under­valued communities. I’m not sure how any politicians could look at you straight in the eye and tell you how this has been addressed in the subsequent years. 

Architects, and the built environment sector, have a significant role to play in correcting the problems we see today – but only if the government is willing to step up. Greater public investment in housebuilding would also offset some of the uncertainty that we’re likely to see entering the market in the coming months.

The RIBA is a broad church and members will have a range of opinions on the rights and wrongs of the various political actors in the Brexit debate. The RIBA will continue to lobby the government for the best outcomes for architects and provide you with the information and support you need, whatever the outcome. 

In a spirit of optimism, I hope that the fog will start to clear a bit soon, and allow the profession to get on with doing what it does best.