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UK Construction Holds its Collective Breath as Brexit Plays Out


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England’s construction sector is nervously tightening its safety harness. In the wake of the British people’s expressed decision to exit the European Union, an array of large and mid-scale construction projects in the UK are threatened with hiatus as stunned international backers see the possibility of having their investments obsoleted by the pending EU/England divorce. UK insiders say that ~ £20b in foreign construction investment is at risk. The list of construction projects in the UK that have hit pause are in two categories: projects partially underwritten by EU funding, and projects whose functional necessity follows from a presumed England/EU relationship that will soon no longer exist. 

Ports Threatened by Brexit Storm

For instance, the London Gateway an enormous port complex, partly managed by Dubai’s DP World and about halfway completed (though currently in use), was pointedly designed as continental gatekeeper to the outsized container ships whose massive cargo holds would, once docked at the sprawling new London port, disgorge and divvy up their cargo among smaller ships which, by EU member rights, would then be able to ply the more regional waterways into the heart of Europe. Now that England stands to give up EU membership, those direct-to-Europe water routes may be going away, and other European coastal facilities are now being hastily considered as alternative ports of entry for the smaller ships. 

The Atlantic Gateway project in Manchester and Liverpool is another investment and construction behemoth under threat thanks to Brexit. The future of the planned shipping mega-complex, the most expensive building project in UK history and a much-anticipated shot in the arm for England’s once-mighty Northwest industrial region, is in doubt. A spokesperson was at pains to point out that EU or no, England is and will remain a major trading partner with the world, and the massive port project is aligned with that ongoing state of affairs. 

Cars and Boats and Planes

But there is a sense that, for the moment, handwringing investors are reacting more to the fallout of world opinion than to the Brexit details themselves. 

There is no question that once the separation is complete, the perks of England’s former EU membership will be quickly rescinded.

Two concrete reasons for concern in the Brexit fine print; the unconstrained European “city-to-city” commercial air corridors enjoyed by EU members will no longer be available to the UK airlines, and the change in direct flight volume may result in some airport closures in Greater London. And Asian car makers are openly discussing removal of their assembly lines from the UK if separation from the EU is going to mean export tariffs on automobiles shipping out of British factories. 

But as the EU and England extricate themselves from a decades-old, contractually complex marriage, there is still a ray of hope that homely old school Market Forces will step in and calm the storm. While publicly held homebuilders in England saw an immediate 20% drop in share prices following the Brexit vote, those share prices are already bouncing back. Why? There is more demand for housing in England than there are houses. It is hoped that these sorts of people-centric fundamentals will show the way forward and mitigate the pain of separation somewhat. Not all divorces have to be nasty, after all.