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Appeal for calm over 'low priority' Brexit leak

Build UK chief executive Suzannah Nichol has called for calm after leaked documents suggested the government considered the construction industry a ‘low priority’ in Brexit negotiations.

The Times last week said it had obtained a document setting out high, medium and low-priority sectors for the government ahead of negotiations to leave the EU.

The newspaper reported the sectors were listed in a document circulated in November by government officials.

High-priority sectors included automotive and aerospace, while medium priorities included electronics and furniture.

Construction was listed under low priorities, alongside steel, oil and gas, telecoms, environmental services, water and medicine.

Shadow secretary of state for housing John Healey tweeted: “This says it all. Despite the housing crisis, construction is a ‘low priority’ for Theresa May’s government.”

However, Ms Nichol said the industry “can’t throw our toys out the pram” about a priority list that “we don’t really know what it means”.

Construction firms should be “less concerned about where the sector is on a list of priorities” and “more concerned” about having conversations on how the major cross-industry issues would be tackled, the trade body chief added.

Ms Nichol said: “No sector wants to be seen as a low-priority sector for government. But on the other hand, what does ‘low priority’ actually mean? 

“As far as I can see, construction has the same concerns as other sectors, such as issues around skills and imports and exports.

”The government must have an enormous list of specific things in each sector it is going to negotiate on and at some point it has to put those in order. Nobody wants to be bottom of the list, but lets look at the economy as a whole and address the big-ticket items.”

A government spokesperson said: “We do not comment on partial accounts of leaked documents. On leaving the EU, the government is determined to deliver an outcome that is good for the whole economy – this includes the construction sector.

“To this end, we have been doing detailed work to prepare for the negotiation, analysing more than 50 sectors and cross-cutting issues. We have set out our aim for a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, while seizing new trading opportunities around the world.”

Balfour Beatty recently called for greater progress tackling the skills gap in order to avoid a rise in construction costs as the UK negotiates its way out of the EU.

The contractor said more than one in 10 of its recruits last year came from other EU countries and that Brexit was one of six issues that could exacerbate a UK engineering shortage. 

“Uncertainty around the free movement of labour in the EU could increase the industry’s recruitment and staffing difficulties, as it may no longer be able to handpick highly skilled engineers from other EU countries as is currently the case,” warned Balfour in its Staying on Track report into rail skills.

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