Civil engineers have warned that the 12-point Brexit plan outlined by prime minister Theresa May must not derail the delivery of vital infrastructure because of labour shortages.
May’s key Brexit speech delivered today said that Britain will not stay in the single market, and with that one of the four pillars of the single market – freedom of movement of people – would go too.
In response, the industry has called on the government to establish a strategy to meet any labour market shortfall.
“What I am proposing cannot mean membership of the single market,” said May.
“European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘4 freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the Single Market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.”
In addition, immigration into the UK will be controlled. May said: “We will continue to attract the brightest and the best to work or study in Britain – indeed openness to international talent must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets – but that process must be managed properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest.”
The Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) welcomed the government’s intention to provide certainty but urged it to consult with the industry to ensure economic stability and continuity of workloads.
“Our top priority must be to ensure that Brexit does not derail the delivery of the vital infrastructure that businesses and communities rely upon,” said head of external affairs Marie-Claude Hemming.
“The government has laudably committed to an ambitious infrastructure programme to drive growth in the UK economy. However, the ability of our members to deliver on these plans will be substantially impacted by any limitations on the availability of EU migrant workers.
“For industry to be able to deliver on the government’s plans, the position of labour availability must be closely monitored, and processes put in place to respond quickly if skills gaps open up due to a lack of availability of skilled labour.”
KPMG partner and UK sector head for infrastructure, building and construction Richard Threlfall said that although May’s speech did not change anything in terms of its understanding of what Brexit would be, it did not bring any greater clarity to the sector in the area which needs clarity, which is the labour force.
“It has been clear from last June that there would be restrictions on labour, but the devil is in the detail. The sector is clearly heavily dependent (on EU labour), including significant amounts which is in government terms relatively unskilled. It is not easy in the short term to backfill that with UK labour when employment is historically high. Therefore the industry needs some form of specific scheme to fill need. Industry urgently needs to engage with government in order to make and win that case.”
He added that he doubted May’s confirmation that the UK plans to leave the single market would give any relief in the short term to the pressure on import prices for materials.
Institution of Civil Engineers director general Nick Baveystock added: “The Prime Minister rightly identifies infrastructure as probably the critical enabler to UK economic growth, social cohesion and employment. Successful engineers and engineering business have a hugely positive effect on any nation’s global trading position.
“Highly trained, motivated and skilled labour is fundamental to industrial success and UK remains a magnet for international talent and innovation. For us to be a truly successful global trading nation we must maintain and grow these skills. Construction provides 2.9M jobs, contributes nearly £90bn (6.7%) to the economy and provides significant opportunities for foreign investment in UK. Reducing uncertainties for investors, industry and skilled labour can only enhance that attractiveness.”