What ‘taking back control’ means for architects

A sense of lack of control is a common concern in our globalised economy. Unsurprisingly, one of the most effective slogans of the Leave campaign was the invitation to “Take back control”. Advocates for Brexit argued that the pooling of UK sovereignty in Brussels meant the electorate had lost control of the political process, and that this had contributed to growing disillusionment with domestic politics. If, as the Brexiteers claim, leaving the EU is about redressing this perceived democratic deficit, then we must now also examine how we govern ourselves within our own borders.

The UK, or at least England, has one of the most centralised systems of government in the developed world. Successive Conservative and Labour administrations have concentrated ever greater power in Westminster. Our cities and towns have been largely stripped of the powers to raise taxes, borrow, invest and innovate. Civic leaders are subjected to the humiliation of going cap in hand to unelected Whitehall officials to beg funding for even the most modest project. For decades, the latent enterprise of Britain’s cities and regions has been stifled by draconian centralised spending limits, and the dead hand of the mandarin class. Scandalously, control over dispensing taxpayers’ own money has largely become the sole privilege of central government ministers and their civil servants.

Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country

The vote to leave the EU is therefore both a challenge and an opportunity that architects must confront. It is no coincidence that the emasculation of our local government – including within London itself – has been paralleled by a declining role for architects in the public life of our towns and cities. Communities stripped of the power to run their own affairs, and micro-managed by central government, have little motivation to engage with the critical discussions concerning their built environments from which so much of the quality of everyday life is derived. 

The new prime minister promises more control for ordinary people, and surely this must translate into real devolution of power from Westminster to the country at large. Architects should take advantage of this moment to agitate for a renaissance in local accountability. And the government in Westminster can no longer ignore the extent to which the impoverishment of the built environment has contributed to the marginalisation and disenfranchisement of so many places across the country. Active and engaged communities are essential to the creation of sustainable and high-quality spaces.

Theresa May has spoken of her desire to speak for those struggling to make their way in modern Britain. Housing is the most obvious and immediate area in which Britain needs to take urgent action. Local communities require the freedom to build housing that meets their needs. Similarly, Whitehall must relinquish control over our often shambolic public transport systems, where it can take longer to travel from Oxford to Cambridge by train than it does to get from London to Paris. 

Brexit has been met with dismay by many architects, but now seems inescapable. The profession has to engage with the debate about the form that Brexit will take. If some seismic shift in the UK is occurring, then it also opens up new possibilities. Ever since Thatcher, architects have been pushed further into the margins of public life, often reduced to stylists for developers and investment products. Most architects aspire to create spaces of real human value. We now need to influence a post-Brexit vision of Britain, where we are able to play a full role as enablers of both social and economic good.

Thanks to the EU, architects can work in more places than ever before

The UK has always had an ambiguous relationship with the EU. It was not an original signatory to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and was twice barred from entry by Charles de Gaulle. When the UK did finally join the European Economic Community in 1973, amid economic turmoil, it was widely seen as an act of expediency – a marriage of convenience rather than a love match.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this rather loveless relationship the UK has actually had a huge influence on the current shape of the EU, particularly in terms of the single market and the massive eastward expansion after the fall of Communism.

There are some within Europe who actually see the UK’s critical detachment and underlying scepticism as invaluable and healthy for the wider EU debate. In contrast to the French model of dirigisme, Britain has consistently pushed for economic liberalisation and, during his recent “renegotiation” with other EU leaders, David Cameron won a renewed commitment to complete the single market in services.

These negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world

Thanks to a number of EU directives, architecture is one services market which is already very open. UK-registered architects are free to work or register anywhere in the EU and public projects over a certain size must be tendered openly in OJEU.

Now, according to Ian Pritchard, secretary general of the Architects’ Council of Europe, there are new opportunities opening up for architects further afield. In 2017, as part of wider EU free trade agreements, British architects can look forward to mutual recognition of qualifications with Canada and South Korea. And by the end of the decade the world’s largest free trade treaty, TTIP, could see a similar agreement in place with the US.

While many UK-registered architects already work abroad, these negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world, on a relatively level playing field with local architects. Although significant barriers may remain in terms of visas and work permits, the logic of these liberal free trade negotiations also points towards increasingly free movement of people.

There are vital issues at stake, not least those of sovereignty and Europe’s response to globalisation. Many would question the free market principles on which the EU’s single market is built, while others see the EU itself as the best guarantor against the worst excesses of rampant globalisation.

However for decades, despite a sometimes testy relationship, the UK has helped lead the debate on the future direction of the EU, including promoting close relations with the US.

Brexit potentially puts all of this at risk and, although the UK is arguably well placed to negotiate its own bilateral trade treaties, nothing is certain for a Britain outside the EU.

The current and potential future benefits of staying together are relatively clear. What is uncertain, and would remain so for several years, is the long-term impact of divorce. If a break-up is where the UK is heading, it would be a risky step into the unknown.