Martyn Evans suggests how to make the most of life after Brexit

Martyn Evans index

The thing that’s missing from our conversations about what’s going to happen with Brexit over the next few months is a crystal ball. On all sides of the debate efforts are being made to make the best of it without the benefit of foresight.

On the government side, civil service leave has been cancelled as plans for a no-deal exit are ramped up. Remainers continue their increasingly desperate plotting to thwart the prime minister’s political strategy while those on the hard leave side argue that Brexit is not a tsunami against which we have to build flood defences, but an economic opportunity to be grabbed with both hands. The quietest voices seem to be those of us in the trenches who, whatever the politicians decide, have to get on with business as unusual when our hand is finally dealt.

In the property development business, it’s the indecision and uncertainty that are causing the biggest problems. While we wait for the political outcome it’s easy to put off until tomorrow that which might be too risky to decide today. Funding is glacially slow and politicians on planning committees are shying away from difficult decisions lest their seats be threatened in coming local elections.

In the marketplace, homebuyers are holding off on commitment until they know what general election vote-gathering policies might affect the level of stamp duty they will pay or whether the market will drop and the offer they’ve made on their prospective new home could be revisited.

What is clear is that unless a general election is called we’re not going to have much to say about what happens, so the best defence right now is to prepare for every eventuality. It’s also not unreasonable to assume that, bar an apple-cart upset, Brexit is very likely to happen at the end of October and that it’s more likely than not that there will be a general election before the planned date of 2022. This will be an election where the parties will be fighting tooth and nail to develop populist policies designed to boost our post-Brexit economy, so now is this the time to start being vocal about what opportunities a new start could bring to our industry.

Let’s be positive about what we want. There is already a rumour that Boris Johnson, in his new infrastructure investment mood, might revive a national programme of public housebuilding. Wouldn’t that be the ultimate irony – a Tory government in the 40th anniversary year of the Thatcherite revolution reversing a policy that even the Blair government didn’t dare meddle with. Are we remotely ready to grab that opportunity with both hands? Are our construction companies ready? Do we have enough apprentices? Are there nearly enough skilled workers available? I learnt this week that when Bush House, on London’s Aldwych, was built in the 1920s it was built by a construction team that had nine basic specialisms. Now a construction project typically has more than 140. Investment in the skills we need has to go hand in hand with the money to build.

Could smaller architecture practices look at ways of forming commercial relationships to share back-office technology and skills?

Making efficient and reliable transport connections between where people live and work is crucial. Crossrail will transform working life in London, making the whole central swathe of London, east to west, available on a reasonable commute to those who work anywhere in the city. The prime minister’s announcement of a fast rail service between Leeds and Manchester has been a long time coming and is very welcome to those businesses and communities in the north of England who have complained for so long about the investment bias towards the south-east. The work and advice of the National Infrastructure Commission has never been more important than it is now and the government needs to pay serious heed to its recommendations.

But these large decisions are beyond the control of the most of us. So what can we do to take advantage? How do we make our businesses more efficient, attractive (to our staff and our clients) and competitive? I spent some years in the mid-1990s building primary care facilities in the health service. Changes in the NHS meant that it became economically more productive for smaller doctors’ surgeries to combine into larger practices to share the cost of service provision that was being shifted away from hospitals. Could smaller architecture practices look at ways of forming commercial relationships in a similar way to share back-office technology and skills?

And what of staff? Are you losing team members back to their European homelands because of the (not remotely unreasonable) uncertainty they feel about their future here? How do you compensate? What changes can you make to reward packages, training programmes and other incentives to be as competitive as possible in an increasingly difficult recruitment market?

And then there’s the expertise that brought you into business in the first place. At a time of uncertainty it’s easy to imagine you have to be all things to all people to survive. I’d argue that it’s the time to do exactly the opposite: to delve deeper into your specialist area and become even better at doing what it is your clients want.

Whatever we feel about the merits of Brexit (and I’m no fan) there is now virtually no chance that we’ll have any say in what will happen. It’s time to start working out how we take advantage of it.