Opportunity or threat for construction after Brexit?

24 September, 2018

Apologies if you are tired of the Brexit debate.  But, leaver or remainer, dealer or no dealer, you cannot ignore it if you are involved in the construction industry.

Whatever the end result of the negotiations and the political manoeuvring, there will be an impact.  Significant quantities of construction material are currently sourced from the EU.  A large number of the construction workforce are EU nationals, estimated at some 26%.  Project costs may be impacted by a weaker pound, supply chain delays and increased labour costs.

Against that, the potential order book for new housing, major infrastructure projects and commercial space is positive.  The industry can and will adapt but to do so what it needs more than anything is an outcome.  The actual outcome is probably less important in itself than the certainty of knowing what the outcome is.  Businesses operate all the time in changing circumstances and will deal with and react to the environment in which they find themselves.  It is the political risk and uncertainty that undermines confidence.

Whilst there will be major challenges ahead, it is evident that the industry needs to invest in the future; indeed it has the opportunity to invent the future.  Last year Balfour Beatty produced Innovation 2050:  A Digital Future for the Infrastructure Industry.  This predicted that by 2050 there would be no human workers on a construction site.

“The construction site of 2050 will be human-free.  Robots will work in teams to build complex structures using dynamic new materials.  Elements of the build will be self-assemble.  Drones flying overhead will scan the site constantly, inspecting the work and using the data collected to predict and solve problems before they arise, sending instructions to robotic cranes and diggers and automated builders with no need for human involvement.  The role of the human overseer will be to remotely manage multiple projects simultaneously, accessing 3D and 4D visuals and data from the on-site machines, ensuring the build is proceeding to specification.  The very few people accessing the site itself will wear robotically enhanced exoskeletons and will use neural-control technology to move and control machinery and other robots on site.”

This may have been met with some scepticism.  However, if the industry is unable to rely on cheap labour, the need to invest and accelerate change is paramount.  In years to come when we look back on an era in which there was a plentiful supply of labour we may feel that, rather than the ‘good old days’, it was a time of missed opportunity for investment and innovation.