Ask most people in the street what European Union (EU) regulations mean to them and you’ll get jokes about straight bananas and complaints about not being able to buy more powerful vacuum cleaners.
But the impact of Brexit for the civil engineering community is no laughing matter for businesses when it comes to what will happen to the EU regulations, directives and professional standards that to date have determined how the sector works.
You can divide these into two categories. First, there’s the issue of standards, which have been developed by the profession on a consensual basis and therefore have minimal exposure to the current political headwinds. Secondly, there are regulations and directives – directives to a lesser extent – whose future depends on the big questions about how Brexit moves forward and whether the UK stays in the single market.
A member state has never left the EU before, so the UK finds itself in an unprecedented situation. This creates political and economic uncertainty for businesses. However, for at least the next two years the UK remains a part of the EU, until the negotiation process for Brexit is concluded.
It’s only since 2010 that Eurocodes have been the definitive standard in the UK, and as such the profession has invested time, training and technology in adoption and adaption.
WSP PB head of bridges and ground engineering Steve Denton is chairman of CEN/TC 250, the international committee responsible for the Eurocodes, the design standards for all structural and geotechnical works in the UK and across Europe. “I received a flood of emails over the weekend asking me what the implications are,” he says.
For Denton and colleagues, there are sound reasons why there will be no change in the long term – it’s in everyone’s interest to work in harmony, making it easier to work and do business with and in other countries. “International standards play a key role in providing an underpinning framework for international trade. Furthermore, those countries that are instrumental in the development of standards benefit when other countries around the world chose to adopt them, as is happening with the Eurocodes,” he explains.
Imperial College London professor of civil engineering David Nethercot adds: “In simple terms, it’s business as usual until and unless there’s any significant reason why there should be a change.
“All the computer software, explanatory material, and manufacturers’ data, have gradually migrated to be on a Eurocodes environment. To reverse that seems unthinkable.”
Indeed, the profession is keen to get the message out that the UK intends to continue its active part in the development of standards. Denton says he has reaffirmed his commitment as Chairman of CEN/TC 250 to his colleagues, which was met with a positive response.
BSI is the UK member of CEN and CENELEC – international committees that support the implementation of European legislation – and it says its ambition is that the UK should continue to participate in the European Standardization System with full CEN and CENELEC membership.
“BSI is continuing on a business as usual basis with all our European standards work, providing the infrastructure for UK experts from the civil engineering sector to participate in the development of standards,” says BSI director of standards Scott Steedman.
“It is very important that the UK civil engineering sector experts continue with their vital work on international and European standards as these form the basis for the market structure within which UK industry is operating.”
He also reiterated the long-term importance of the system: “The benefits of standards are well known and proven worldwide. Whether in the form of codes, guidance or specifications, standards are an increasingly important element of international business.”
Steadman cites the recent BIM standards (the PAS 1192 series) as an example of how the UK has been able to project its expertise internationally. “The UK civil engineering sector, working with BSI as the UK national standards body and alongside strategic international partners wherever there is mutual benefit, has every opportunity to project the technical, commercial and business best practices that it uses to Europe and the rest of the world through the vehicle of consensus standards,” he says.
But while the profession is agreed on the issue of standards, the fate of the regulations and directives is less clear at the moment and will depend on the political outcome of Brexit.
The UK civil engineering sector, like all businesses in the UK, is governed by an enormous number of regulations and directives – from the controversial Working Time Directive to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, one that Thames Water has cited compliance with as a key reason behind the £4bn Thames super sewer scheme. They have a massive impact on areas such as water, environment and energy, as well as construction. Directives are written into UK law, so they would have to be repealed by Parliament and would still apply when the UK leaves the EU, so it’s unlikely there will be any immediate change, if any. However regulations are imposed by the EU. These include laws such as the Construction Products Regulation (CPR), which lays down harmonised rules for the marketing of construction products in the EU.
“One of the concerns is as time goes by, will there be a bit of divorce between UK and European practices. In reality, that’s unlikely. We sell in world markets,” says Fenwick Elliott senior partner Simon Tolson, who specialises in construction and engineering law.
“We have integration in everything in construction that helps from the development of building products to sell to specifiers to BIM. If we move outside the box in terms of Europe, I don’t see that changing. I think the overall view of most people is that no one knows, we’re in a massive period of instability, but everyone is getting on with their jobs.”
Tolson believes another major factor that will drive the way the civils sector works is the partnerships already established: “If you have an established business relationship with partners with whom you do regularly, you’ll still want to do business. There will be a lot of energy to keep those relationships alive,” he says.
When it comes to doing business in the EU, it’s essential to work to the legislation around public sector procurement.
“The EU procurement regime is a core part of how big projects are procured, their transparency and fairness. For example they seek to ensure that the market is kept as open as possible so that it is not dominated only by the largest contractors,” explains Dentons law firm partner John Woolley, who works in the energy, transportation and infrastructure practice with a focus on energy and infrastructure transactions.
“Many people are used to the system and think it’s a good thing. Any change would introduce initial uncertainty into the system, but presumably there would have to be wide consultation.”
As the political process towards Brexit moves forward, it seems the most civils firms can do is make sure that in the long term there’s flexibility within their work for any change.
Woolley adds: “UK infrastructure projects are designed to comply with current directives and those which it is reasonably anticipated will be implemented into English law during the construction of a particular project. Contracting parties will need to give greater consideration to Change in Law provisions in their contracts given the increased uncertainty that Brexit brings.”