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Theresa May's Brexit speech leaves questions unanswered for construction industry

Theresa May delivered her much-anticipated Brexit speech on Tuesday.

The business community was eager to hear how the UK would set out its negotiations before the government triggers Article 50 in March later this year.

One of the biggest concerns about Brexit for the infrastructure sector is around people and freedom of movement.

What did May say on immigration?

The domestic UK infrastructure industry is underpinned by skilled overseas labour predominantly sourced from the EU, where a large pool of skills can be accessed quickly and easily. The government’s stance on immigration from EU countries will therefore have a significant and material impact on the UK infrastructure market.

Construction firms are very keen to ensure they do not suffer a resourcing crisis at the hands of a hard Brexit. But as Mrs May confirmed in her speech, the UK government will be looking to “control immigration to Britain from Europe”. What this means in practice remains to be seen.

Fortunately the prime minister did offer some hope, stating that the UK would always want “high-skilled immigration” and “immigration from Europe”. However, we are yet to find out whether skilled manual labour would fall into this category and, almost as importantly, how we’d avoid recruiting from abroad becoming a lengthy, costly and burdensome process.

Phased Brexit offers good news

For those operating within the industry, it is very clear that there is a skills shortage and this problem needs addressing urgently. It would be like pouring gasoline on the fire if the UK government were to severely limit the number of European skilled labourers allowed to work in the country.

“When the negotiations do start, we must make sure the severity of the skills gap has been truly understood at the highest level”

The good news is that a “phased approach” to the Brexit process was mentioned. This gives hope to the industry that there will be a transitional period which allows businesses to either secure work permits for their workforce, or source skilled labour from elsewhere.

It was interesting to note that Mrs May specifically mentioned manufacturing and financial services within her speech, clearly two industries that have been lobbying hard.

We as an industry must continue to bang the drum for infrastructure and ensure our voices are heard throughout government. When the negotiations do start, we must make sure the severity of the skills gap has been truly understood at the highest level.

This government wants to solve the problem of the housing crisis and ensure the UK invests heavily in updating the country’s infrastructure. None of this will be possible if there aren’t enough people to lay the foundations.

John Morris is global head of projects and construction at global law firm Clyde & Co

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