Is architecture really ‘in peril’ if we leave the EU?

16 January, 2019

It must have been a few minutes after Theresa May’s resounding defeat last night that a tweet popped up from RIBA Chief Executive Alan Vallance.

Like millions of others, Vallance doesn’t want to see us crash out without a deal. But it’s what he went on to say the following day about the impact on RIBA members that caught my eye.

“For the architecture sector, projects continue to be put on hold as uncertainty damages the investment climate and many EU architects in the UK are still uncertain about their future”, he said in a statement today.

The RIBA has been talking up projects being put on hold since June 2016.  Of course Brexit has caused insecurity and clients have used it as an excuse to sit on sites, particularly house builders. But it’s not the only reason the housing market is cooling while the London office market is in rude health, confounding expectations at the time of the Brexit vote.

In fact, pundits say the construction sector should be healthier in 2019 than last year mainly because of government investment and the three H’s of Britain’s infrastructure pipeline: the HS2 high speed rail line, the Hinkley Point nuclear power plant and the third Heathrow runway.

Ever since we voted Leave, RIBA has ratcheted up the perils facing the profession. This, I believe, is in order to make makes its members feel vulnerable. When you’re afraid you cling to what you know. This is how fear works.

RIBA also paints a fearful picture of life after Brexit – of EU architects leaving the UK like rats deserting a sinking ship.

According to RIBA published research, almost half of EU architects working in the UK have considered leaving since the referendum. The key words here are ‘have considered’.

Of the EU architects I know personally, one went back to Belgium because he was offered a fantastic job working in the public sector, one decided to continue her studies and the other got a job with a practice in her home city of Nantes. None left because they felt life here was becoming intolerable or because they were about to be given their P45.

However, RIBA is worried because EU architects are the backbone of most large practices. Without them it would be forced to confront a difficult truth: international architects are better trained than their UK counterparts.

London has always been a magnet for architects and big London practices have been free-riding on skills produced abroad for years. But the UK’s new immigration system has also highlighted RIBA’s failure to reform UK architectural education – and frankly why bother when it’s almost  impossible to get a consensus from the various statutory bodies and practices can draw their workforce from 28 EU states?

Coping with a post-Brexit world and lower immigration will put architectural education under the spotlight once again and require the RIBA to try and tackle the skills mismatch that immigration was solving up to now.  A first step should be to  re-look at those schools which are failing to produce employable graduates but nevertheless have been ‘validated’.

As for RIBA’s claim that a £30,000 salary threshold for foreign architects is a ‘disaster’ because it would lock out talented architects at the start of their careers, how much does it think a qualified architect should earn? £20,00 pa, £25,000 pa or is it accepted that EU architects working in London practices have private means?

There are reasons to worry about architecture’s future and most serious of all is the failure of UK architecture schools to teach the skills needed to meet the demands of future clients. Brexit is not welcome but the UK’s reliance on foreign workers throws RIBA a challenge it can’t afford to duck.