Brexit threatens UK infra workers, RICS says

The loss of more than 175,000 EU construction workers, equivalent to 8% of the workforce, could put the government’s £500bn infrastructure pipeline at risk.

Brexit could cost the UK construction industry more than 175,000 workers, jeopardising the government’s £500 billion ($619 billion; €576 billion) infrastructure pipeline, according to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

EU workers comprise 8 percent of the construction workforce, a RICS survey shows, and without action by the government to allow many of these workers to stay in the country, infrastructure projects could be slowed down or grind to a halt. To prevent this, RICS has called for construction professionals to be added to the UK shortage occupation list and prioritised during the visa application process.

“We have a construction skills gap now, and that is with EU workers,” Jeremy Blackburn, RICS’s head of UK policy, told Infrastructure Investor.

Viewing construction workers’ skills as essential would not only keep the door open for EU workers but also allow skilled professionals from outside the EU to be hired. Thirty percent of construction professionals said hiring non-UK workers is important to their businesses’ success.

In December, the UK government published a national infrastructure and construction pipeline calling for £500 billion in public and private investment. But without the workers to complete these projects, the pipeline may be “a moot point”, said Blackburn.

“It just won’t happen, or it won’t happen at the speed we’d expect,” he said.

A failure to act, Blackburn added, would lead to a growing construction skills gap and a rising cost of labour. He does expect UK leaders to address the issue, but hopes they do so sooner rather than later.

“The government does have this on their dashboard as a risk,” Blackburn said. “But we need them to be clearer about what kind of immigration system they plan on instituting in two years’ time.”

Overall, the UK’s infrastructure sector has withstood the shock of last June’s Brexit referendum, RICS believes. Last month, the institution’s president Amanda Clack told Infrastructure Investor that Brexit has not led to panic in the sector.

“Uncertainty is not good for infrastructure, whether it’s political leaders, or changes in governance. All of that uncertainty will invariably have a level of impact,” Clack said. “But we are not specifically seeing much as a result of Brexit as of yet.”

While construction workers are not yet given visa priority by the government, RICS pointed out that professions that are include ballerinas.

“Ballet dancers won’t improve our infrastructure or solve the housing crisis,” Blackburn noted in a post on the RICS website. “Yet their skills are currently viewed as essential, whereas construction professionals are not.”