Brexit or Bremain – what’s in it for the construction industry?

Views from the industry...

With only a few weeks to go, the noise around the In/Out referendum is getting louder. Concerns about the economy, immigration and the strains on public services abound but views on how the construction industry might be affected are less easy to find.

In January, Building magazine reported that there was considerable concern that UK withdrawal from the EU would be damaging for the British construction industry and the magazine has come out in support of staying in the EU. The results of an exclusive survey of 1,300 construction professionals earlier this month showed two-thirds’ support for staying in the EU (www.building.co.uk/news/brexit-would-hit-construction-for-years-to-come-says-hill-chief/5081852.article)

On the other hand the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) sees Brexit as positive suggesting that the prospect of less red tape might be appealing, ‘…particularly for those smaller builders who find complying with Euro-regulations quite burdensome…’ says the FMB’s Sarah McMonagle.

‘The requirement, under the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD) that all construction must be “near” zero carbon standard by 2020 is giving small contractors particular headaches. If we were not part of the EU, that would be advantageous for small house builders for whom going further could be quite problematic’ says McMonagle

This outlook seems a little surprising, as a major concern for the industry is the impact that an end to the free movement of labour will have on construction skills shortages. Richard Threlfall, head of infrastructure, building and construction at KPMG (a financial service company) said ‘We have made the numbers stack up over the last 10 years by an influx of labour, particularly from Eastern Europe. The last thing the industry needs is to have that supply choked off, because it will make it even harder to deliver projects. It would be deeply unhelpful if we create more barriers to entry for labour into the UK.’

The Green Register has invited various UK construction experts to provide a range of perspectives on some of the key aspects of sustainable construction that might be under threat if we leave. Whether it is the Part L (see point 1 ‘Energy’ below), the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (see point 2 ‘Water’ below), or the EPBD (see point 3 “Building Regulations’ below), The Green Register’s position is that staying in the EU is of great benefit to our industry as well as wider afield.

As one of our contributors, Chris clearly states: ‘…the sustainability leadership position that our industry has worked so hard to carve out on the global stage would be under threat, and the UK’s progress towards a low carbon economy jeopardised.’

Let’s not allow this to become reality otherwise we are not just taking a leap into the unknown but an enormous backward step into 20th century thinking.

Comments in full from our contributors:

1. ENERGY                                                        

EU referendum Vote - what are the implications for energy performance in buildings?

If we stay in the EU, Part L of the building regulations will continue to meet the EU directive (EPBD) on NZEBs (Nearly Zero Energy Buildings) in 2020. The process is viability tested, and so arguably this could mean the current part L 2013 standard is compliant. Government have committed to a 2018 review of building regulations in the recent Housing and Planning Act 2016, and by staying in the EU, there would arguably be another driver for improved standards.

If we leave the EU, we will still have to comply with the Climate Change Act 2008, and increasing planning/building regulations to meet to meet a similar end. Put simply, the outcome of the EU vote will affect the detail of our energy policy in buildings, but not the end results. The more important question is whether any of this policy will improve construction quality to reach these targets? Will any of this policy have a simpler, more robust compliance process that gives results?

Tom Dollard - Associate, Head of Sustainable Design, Pollard Thomas Edwards architects www.pollardthomasedwards.co.uk

2. WATER     

In the time honoured tradition of Monty Python’s ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, we could ask the same question of the European Union with exactly the same results…. a lot as it happens, especially improving the UK’s water supply and sanitation infrastructure. So why is this? And what effect does it have on the built environment?

It started in 1975 with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive – legislation to stop EU members discharging raw sewage directly into seas or rivers. Now there is the Water Framework Directive (which came into force in December 2000 and became part of UK law in 2003) that commits all European Union member states to achieve ‘good’ qualitative and quantitative status of all water bodies (including marine waters up to one nautical mile from shore) by 2015, covering the abstraction from water bodies as well as sewage flows into them.

The UK’s beach resorts are now infinitely cleaner and safer to bathe in as a result of both of these pieces of legislation (as an island nation we had always discharged raw sewage directly out to sea as well as dumping sewage sludge in our marine waters, both of which are now illegal under European Law). The question is would we have done it without any push from the EU? It’s unlikely.

The UK spent most of the 1980’s battling against the directive until the EU actually started infringement proceedings and the Thatcher Government was forced to acquiesce. Yes it was expensive. South West Water alone spent over £2 billion stopping the discharge of raw sewage into the sea around Devon and Cornwall, a cost borne by the local inhabitants. (I have written more about that here.) But it is precisely the cost of such far reaching legislation that makes it unlikely that either of the two main UK parties would have introduced such legislation when the next election is always less than five years away.

The Water Framework Directive has been one of the main drivers for non-connection of stormwater drains into foul sewers. Although this has been met by the building industry in the most part to mean attenuation in the form of large underground concrete chambers, it has also been a driver - along with BREEAM and the (now-defunct) Code for Sustainable Homes - for the take-up of SuDS.

Now we only dump raw sewage out to sea when it rains, and our combined sewers become overwhelmed and discharge through Combined Sewer Overflows. Under the WFD this has been illegal since 2015 though still happens across the whole of the UK. The London ‘super sewer’ is being built to conform to the directive and at the same time there are a lot of exciting retrofit SuDS schemes and rain gardens going into the UK’s cities, to release the pressure on the drainage system.

And the water supply? The WFD requirement for resilience (now enshrined in the Water Act, 2014) meant that water efficiency was addressed under Part G of the Building Regulations in 2010. Before that date the term appeared only in the Water Byelaws and was not properly enforced. In the 2015 update to Part G there is a fitting standards to show compliance; much of the argument for its inclusion was based on the requirements of the WDF. (See more here.)

Of course, the EU is not perfect. The link between hot water use and CO2 emissions is still not being made clearly enough either at European or UK level and I am sure lobbying still occurs. But it seems to me that, in the case of water, the legislation from Europe has the environment at its core not the perceived needs of the UK building industry, who have far greater lobbying powers with the UK Government than most environmental organisations. I hope we stay in.

Cath Hassell – Director, ech2o www.ech2o.co.uk

3. BUILDING REGULATIONS

On Thursday 23rd June the UK will hold a referendum on whether we should stay within or remove ourselves from the European Union, but what does this mean from a Building Control perspective?

Like all European nations the UK has regulations that control standards in the built environment. The UK member states of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have their own set of regulations albeit for historical reasons many of the individual requirements are similar in nature. The statutory basis of these regulations will often be enshrined within a piece of primary legislation issued by Parliament, such as the Building Act 1984 which covers both England and Wales.

From this piece of national legislation, which sets the framework for our building control system, comes the regulations which provide the detail of our built environment standards. Over the last decade there has been a steady increase in the influence that the European commission has had on the development of the UK’s national standards, both in terms of the regulations and standards themselves, the steady transition from British Standards to European EN versions of these codes of practice and the implementation of the Construction Products Regulations requiring the majority of products used in the built environment to be CE marked.

This has particularly been evident in the area of energy efficiency where the European Commission “Energy Performance of Buildings Directive” has resulted in amendments to the national standards to ensure that as a member state the UK is meeting its obligations both in terms of technical targets, such as “nearly zero energy buildings” and time targets, for instance all new buildings to meet the NZEB standard by the end of 2020.

As well as energy efficiency the commission has introduced a binding directive in respect of the provision of high speed broadband in all new buildings and this will be implemented by the UK government by means of a new Part R of the Building Regulations from 1st January 2017.

From a Building Control perspective the forthcoming referendum offers an opportunity to consider the influence that the commission has had upon our national standards and in that sense I would personally feel that they have been instrumental in driving standards and harmonisation in a positive way.

Steve Barnshaw - Head of Technical Services, JHAi Approved Building Inspectors www.jhai.co.uk

4. ECOLOGY AND ENVIRONMENTAL STANDARDS

A British vote to leave the EU would, without question, have implications for work underway to improve sustainability in the built environment. The first implication would be a period of uncertainty while a new relationship was negotiated, destabilising current industry initiatives, some of which are faltering following the current Government’s recent cull of energy efficiency policies and standards.

The UK’s environmental policy has been led by the EU since approximately 2000, and it is not known how the UK Government would perform in its absence. UK initiatives, such as the Climate Change Act 2008, have been driven essentially by the EU’s 2002 Energy Performance in Buildings Directive.

Similarly, renewable energy goals have come from the Renewable Energy Directive. This is not to diminish the impact of progressive native UK policy, such as the London Plan, but the track record of the current Government and its desire for deregulation, points to a very limited appetite to set a leading agenda.

For now, our European clients, and the international brands operating across Europe that we work with, remain committed to and confident in our ability to help them deliver their sustainability goals. However, the sustainability leadership position that our industry has worked so hard to carve out on the global stage would be under threat, and the UK’s progress towards a low carbon economy jeopardised.

Chris Hocknell - Technical Director, eight associates www.eightassociates.co.uk

5. BUILDING MATERIALS

As I have watched the debate unfold in the media and had those ‘are you in/out’ discussions, one thing that has bothered me is that ‘risk’ is the main focus in discussion and the predominant reason for remaining part of the EU. This is not, I believe, a sound basis for such a significant decision.

If you are voting to remain part of the EU because you think the risks are greater if we leave, then I would suggest your focus is on the hope of maintaining a status quo and would urge you to think again.

The EU is not some static state, it has 28 member countries, the last joining in 2013, and will constantly evolve and develop over time. The danger of staying with a focus on perceived risks and maintaining a status quo are large, as invariably it leads to a lack of real involvement in the EU which in turn can lead to the bureaucratic nonsense that is Brussels and Strasbourg to name but one of the obvious; a European parliament operating at two different locations at a cost of millions.

So I would encourage us all to think again, but not base our decision on risk, but on opportunity and not on what the UK will get out of it, but what do we all, ‘us Europeans’ get out of it. It can be hard for us Brits to feel part of something when our borders are perhaps more clearly defined, but we share much as Europeans and there is much to be gained from a Union that has shared core values.

Andrew Mitchell, Natural Building Technologies (www.natural-building.co.uk)

6. MATERIALS SUPPLY

We are told that the decision made on the 23rd June will be momentous, we are charged with the responsibility of voting on the issues in hand; many of the people I talk to in our sector feel ill equipped to do so and frankly so do I.

With the extensive coverage and all the surrounding hype I cannot think of any decision I have had to make with so little confidence in the facts available to help me do so, certainly not one so serious. I feel in the same position as Carl Sagan, the famous physicist and populariser of science, did when asked what his ‘gut feeling’ was about a serious issue, his reply “I prefer not to think with my gut!”

Much of the current public debate focuses on claim and counterclaim for figures and consequences that I have no way of independently checking and so natural scepticism creeps in. In the absence of facts that I consider verified, accepted and useful to my decision making process I too would prefer not to think with my gut; instead I have looked at the sustainable and healthy construction sector which we serve for some pointers.

There are some interesting features; most of our suppliers (manufacturers) are European, when you compare the biggest selling producers of quality sustainable building materials they coincide with countries that have high levels of self build and custom build. This does not appear to be a coincidence. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and France all have higher levels of self build than the UK (currently at around 10%) see diagram below.

The self build sector is a growing sector and a vital part of improving the quality, performance and health of our housing stock. The drivers for self builders go beyond profit and shareholder value so they are good at adopting new building practices and are more demanding of performance over UK regulations. The European countries that have higher levels of self build use more of these type of materials and, as noted by Tom Dollard below, the performance levels they are required to meet will be incumbent on us soon enough. What this demonstrates is that the use of these materials (and building systems) to reach and exceed these requirements has been a normal part of building practice across much of Europe for years. I think it is fair to assume that being ‘in’ Europe has offered us the opportunity to take advantage of this experience and provide a shortcut to improved building performance here in the UK; no doubt one could argue that we could do the same from outside the EU, but being in the Union has undoubtedly removed barriers, opened opportunities, sponsored positive change and provided us with productive working relationships that I see no need to distress or test unnecessarily by leaving the Union.

Image Source: Self-help housing: the First World’s hidden housing arm by S Duncan and A Rowe (University of Sussex, Urban and Regional Studies working papers: 85).

Will Kirkman, Eco-Merchant (www.ecomerchant.co.uk)

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