Date 23/11/2020

Author Carl

Losing its lustre—Will London’s great attraction be weakened in 2021?

The allure of great cities is a potent force, drawing talent to the centre. For architects, the most desirable posts are currently to be found in London, New York and Tokyo, far outstripping the appeal of rival cities. But the shocks of Brexit and COVID pose a double threat to London’s place among the top three places to live and work. Unless we get it right, come next year, as other cities recover from the virus, London may be facing a sharp decline.

Resilience is a quality often found in cities. London’s ability to recover from the financial meltdown of 2008 laid the foundations for its recent rise to prominence as an architectural centre. And as more international practices expanded their operations here, they did so with the support of large numbers of non-UK workers. It’s a trend that has continued. In a survey last year, RIBA found that one in four architects working in the UK are non-UK nationals. Of those, four fifths come from EU countries. The figures for London are closer to 60% of roles held by non-UK nationals. In the post COVID and post Brexit world, how many of those people will be able and willing to stay, and how many more will in the future choose London over other places, perhaps closer to home?

After the Brexit vote in 2016, there remained a steady stream of EU workers ready to fill vacancies at London practices. More recently, perhaps triggered by COVID work-from-home policies, some talented people from EU countries have left London and are not planning to return. As an illustration, KEO International recently opened an office in Porto, specifically targeting Portuguese nationals with international experience to fill its vacancies, knowing that they could build lower cost base teams outside of London. Others are looking to Madrid and Milan.

Will other European Capitals grow at Londons expense?

Brexit has ushered in the greatest changes to immigration law in the UK for a generation. From the first of January, EU nationals will no longer enjoy privileged access to jobs in UK practices. Instead they will find themselves subject to a points-based system for visa applications just as for any other non-UK national. (Existing residents will need to register themselves under the government’s EU settlement scheme, by the end of June 2021.)

New immigration policy will make it more onerous for employers too, in paperwork as well as cost. Employers must register as sponsors and buy a licence for each applicant. Tier 2 licences (for long term job offers) cost between £500 and £1500, take about two months to process and carry a maximum duration of five years. Although most applications will be eligible under the skilled worker route, and most jobs will be well above the minimum salary threshold of £20,480 for shortage occupations—which architecture remains—there is no guarantee that the talent will come.

Will London now have easier access to talent beyond Europe ….

On the positive side, for London based practices, particularly those with an international client portfolio, the changes level the playing field. Where access to EU talent was prioritised—due to its ease—the new rules make applications from further afield equally promising, or no more awkward, if that’s how you like to look at it. A lot of London work is beyond Europe in Africa, Middle East and Asia which favours a growth in talent from India, China and the US. That’s good news, but it requires London companies to invest more in promoting themselves in more places.

One place they could give their attention to would be the higher education. UK universities are good at marketing to EU and international students, and in many cases they have come to rely on their fees. In a typical UK architecture degree programme, you might find 40 undergraduates, of which half will be non-UK nationals. If more firms were to foster closer ties to UK universities, they might go some way toward stopping an increasing outflow of talent.

The initiative is already being taken by universities themselves. UCL’s Bartlett faculty is expanding its landscape architecture provision and seeking new industry connections to augment it. While UK universities may not yet be able to replace the loss of talent from the city, such moves are positive for the profession and deserve support.

Architecture depends on being outward looking and open and cannot at this time afford to be anything else.

For more information about changes to immigration law see:

 To read more about UCL Bartlett Faculty programme

And to discuss any concerns you have about visas, the Government’s EU settlement scheme, or any other career maters, speak to Carl on +44 (0)7947 868888.

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