Thursday, April 20, 2017

Here we go again…

Paul McLaughlin, BESA Chief Executive

I suspect quite a few people reacted in a similar fashion to the latest internet sensation ‘Brenda from Bristol’ when the PM shocked the nation with her announcement of a snap General Election.

“What…not another one!” has been adopted as a slogan by many voters wearied by two years of unprecedented political turmoil, but will another election really make that much difference to us as an industry?

Will the Great Repeal Bill be repealed? Unlikely.  Will the ‘Brexit’ timetable remain on track? It has to.

However, Mrs May’s shock announcement has already knocked some things off track: The government’s Industrial Strategy and the Clean Growth Plan are being delayed again.

These are important documents because the former sets the agenda for delivering on the government’s construction and infrastructure plans; and the latter is intended to set out how it will meet the targets set in its Fifth Carbon Budget, which promises to limit the UK’s annual carbon emissions to 57% below 1990 levels by the year 2032.

Click here to see the BESA's response to the Industrial Strategy consultation. 

Gavin Barwell is the fifth Housing Minister in the last five years… and he won in Croydon with an extremely narrow margin in 2015. Will we be dealing with yet another change of direction on housing policy after the election on June 8?

Whatever the outcome, the priorities for BESA members and the sector remain clear: We need to see clear plans for public sector investment in construction and infrastructure projects; continued commitment to the new vocational training agenda; and clarification of the country’s post-Brexit legislative position.

Those are our priorities, but they should also be government priorities as they are essential to underpinning economic growth. As is providing clarity on the impact of Brexit because Article 50 is triggered and the clock is ticking.

Around 80 per cent of our environmental legislation emanated from the EU – and much of it has a direct impact on how building engineering services companies go about their work.  However, the Brexit White Paper, which prepared the way for the Repeal Bill, made it clear that any legislation already adopted into UK law would remain in place.

This implies that staples of the building engineering sector like the Building Regulations; building energy performance labels – EPCs and DECS – along with the proposed minimum energy efficiency standards for rental properties; the F-Gas Regulation etc. will continue to set the tone for our sector’s work.

It would be crazy, clearly, if the government decided to repeal it all and start again, but as the past year has shown us – you need to expect the unexpected.

In truth, unless a new government decides to tear up the Carbon Budget (most unlikely), we will probably have to go further than existing environmental laws. We will need new energy efficiency targets; more incentives for low carbon heat and electricity generation; and a major push towards zero energy buildings from 2019.

The lack of a specific mention of action on air quality in the White Paper is a concern and Brexit must not be used as an excuse to sweep that crucial issue under the carpet. The UK remains locked in legal conflict with the European Supreme Court over our inability to meet the clean air standards set by the EU Air Quality Directive – and our industry has a huge contribution to make in driving up standards of indoor air quality (IAQ), which should be part of any long-term strategy.

Walking away from the EU is not an excuse to go soft on the growing pollution crisis – whether we are answerable to a European court or not – and a new government should not assume they have a mandate to ignore the health crisis caused by toxic emissions.

However, enforcement has always been problematic – even as a member of the EU – and it has been particularly lax around the Building Regulations and measures linked to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) like air conditioning inspections.

The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee has flagged up the likely “vacuum” in the enforcement of environmental law in the post-Brexit period.  How the government proposes to ensure its own laws are upheld must be part and parcel of its plans – and we will be seeking clarity from all of the political parties in the run up to the polling day on June 8.

Settling the issue of the rights of EU citizens to remain in Britain and for British people to retain their status in the remaining EU has become priority number one for Brexit Secretary David Davis and his negotiating team. This also has implications for our sector’s workforce.

Currently, about 10% of workers across the construction sector are non-UK nationals – we assume a similar proportion for building engineering services. That doesn’t seem like a large proportion – and not all are from the EU – but for a sector already suffering from skills shortages and with a looming recruitment gap, forecast to be over 150,000 in the next five years for construction as a whole, losing any valuable source of skilled labour cannot be good news.

In or out of the EU, the UK has a severe housing shortage; a complex energy challenge and an ongoing need for infrastructure renewal – all of which requires the most diverse and skilled workforce possible.

Whoever is in power on June 9 – the building engineering sector will remain at the heart of their solutions for meeting an extraordinary array of climate and construction challenges far into the future.

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