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Brexit: the profession’s verdict

Adrian Malleson

What will be the effect on construction of the decision to leave Europe? Architects have some strongly-held expectations

In this article, we take the time to concentrate on the views of architectural practices, including multi-disciplinary practices.

In light of the referendum, in which the UK voted to leave the EU, we quite suddenly lacked any reliable data about what the future might hold for the architecture profession. Projections made before the referendum about growth in the UK construction industry were no longer well founded. So the future for architectural workloads became unclear. In an attempt to get some clarity, NBS held a snap survey into the attitudes of the design community towards the referendum result, and the effects it may have. The results are stark.

A large number, 650, responded to our survey, showing just how important the referendum result is. Among those, there was strong representation from architects and multi-disciplinary practices; 392 responses, so around 60% of the overall base. These architects came from a range of practice sizes, so provide a good overall representation of the UK architecture community.

We also invited free text comments, and it has been striking just how heartfelt and polarised some of these have been. The architectural community cares most deeply about this issue. We use direct quotations to illustrate points, but there are, of course, too many to include.

Our thanks to those who took the time to share their views.

‘What a grave error we have made voting to leave.’

‘A great opportunity to boldly go forward as a cohesive society and shape our own destiny without relying on direction and handouts from a remote and unelected centre.’

Overall then, what does the survey tell us? In short, most respondents felt that the referendum decision will damage the UK’s architectural community in the short term, and quite possibly in the long term too. The construction industry, architectural practices and individual architects are more likely to be worse than better off, our respondents tend to suggest.

More see their workloads decreasing (44%) than increasing (6%), because of the referendum decision. Nearly a quarter (24%) believe workloads will stay the same, with the same percentage reserving judgement.

The responses on staffing levels also show more architects expecting a decrease (30%) than an increase (5%). However, the largest group expect staffing levels to remain the same (40%). So are we seeing what we saw in the recession of 2008? Then many practices lost staff, but the rate of staff losses did not match the rate of deterioration in workload. Wherever possible, foresightful architectural practices retained people and skills, ready for future growth.

A number of respondents acknowledged a reliance on EU architects in their practice and were mostly concerned about the uncertainty the referendum has caused.

‘As an EU national working in a UK practice I feel worried about my future in this country.’

‘25% of our staff are non-British EU citizens who make a significant contribution to our work.’

Others suggested that EU architects had a negative effect on those from the UK.

‘Since 2005 it has become impossible for us to work in London. EU migrant architects are preferred to UK talent.'

Looking more broadly, we asked about the UK construction industry. Here, most strongly, our respondents felt that the referendum result would have a negative effect. Sixty-four percent felt the UK industry is more likely to shrink in the next 12 months because of the referendum. Only 4% feel it is more likely to grow, while 15% think it will stay the same.

Previously, the construction sector has fared worse than the general economy in a recession, and better in growth periods. Further, architectural workloads tend to grow and shrink more than the broader construction industry. However, here we see architects being more positive about their practices and workloads than about the construction industry generally.

‘Voting out has brought uncertainty to the sector and this is always bad as people put investment decisions on hold.’

‘If the vote to leave means that we can simplify how buildings are specified and procured, then the construction industry will show accelerated growth.’

In the next questions, we looked at what effects, if any, the referendum itself had already had. Bear in mind that this survey went live within a week of the vote, and closed within three weeks, so these are early results. That said, it does look as if the referendum is already having a negative effect on architectural practices. Nearly a quarter, 24%, of respondents have had at least one project cancelled or put on hold, though most have not. The total value of those projects varies greatly – from £50,000 to £125 million. Again, nearly a quarter don’t know, suggesting that the effects are yet to be felt.

‘While not yet having projects on hold, the danger is that the financial uncertainty created by Brexit will leave projects less likely to proceed as funding is less certain. Clients are certainly less optimistic now.’

‘We are aware of several projects with so called Brexit clauses which have now been triggered to put [the schemes] on hold.’

Finally, we asked for architects’ assessment of the referendum result. Overall, the profession does not believe that the nation made the right choice on 23 June.

Seventy-eight percent tell us that they do not think the electorate made the right decision, while only 13% do. Opinions tended to be strongly held on both sides.

‘It’s the best thing done for our nation in 40 years.’

‘It is a great pity for all the European Countries to lose the collaboration of the United Kingdom but I think that is even worse for the UK itself.’

So, that gives a summary of the findings of our survey. There is much more that could be said, about UK architects’ strength in global working, our strongly positive trade balance, about the underlying strength of the UK construction sector, and our world-leading design practice, both at outline and detail stages. We explored some of these themes in the NBS RIBA Economics Panel discussion, the findings of which you can read in the RIBA Journal here.

The results I have described above were those straight after the referendum. Views were often raw and polarised. In time, we will become clearer about what Brexit means, and how it will affect UK architecture.

‘I am confident that things will settle down in time.’

Over the coming months we at NBS will continue to monitor and report on the views of the design community.

Adrian Malleson is head of research at NBS



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