One of the less familiar but important aspects of the Brexit Infrastructure Group’s work has been our work on codes and standards. There are serious implications from Brexit in terms of the future development and use of standards, codes, guidance for industry across the built environment sector. Looking across the options, we concluded that UK experts, supported by BSI in its role as the national standards body, should remain at the heart of the European regional standards system.
Industry standards are voluntary tools that represent a consensus of good practice. They are not regulations but usually called up as a contractual obligation to set out how the work will be done. Currently the UK has a strong influence in the European system, based on BSI’s full membership of the private (non-EU) regional standards bodies CEN and CENELEC and the significant number of British experts on committees and working groups.
However, Britain’s continued participation in this system depends on meeting the obligations of CEN and CENELEC membership. This in turn depends on the UK continuing to follow the international standards model that we use today, which is based on the idea of one standard, used everywhere. UK experts are very effective at influencing international standards and this advantages the UK economy both domestically and internationally. In the European context, it means that the 34 countries in the system agree to adopt one common industry standard and then to withdraw any conflicting national standards.
- A potential loss of UK business competitiveness as divergence led to the development of two parallel industry standards systems, with added cost and complexity for the sector
- Complications caused by the market need to follow a system shaping design and construction practices in which UK experts no longer had direct influence, having given up the positions of authority we currently hold in the CEN-CENELEC system
- The likely fragmentation of the market structure within the UK as clients or regions adopted different practices in their use of standards
- An impact on UK academic research as the opportunity to use our influence in standards making to export new ideas and innovations would be reduced
A resurgent interest in the UK in using standards to create competitive advantage and to strengthen international market access could create substantial new opportunity. Two risks need to be avoided: one, if the UK’s model of technical regulation post-Brexit and its use of voluntary industry standards ultimately diverges too widely from the EU equivalent. And secondly if the UK’s future trade agreements with non-EU countries involves any mutual recognition of another nation’s standards as a means of compliance with regulation, which would trigger fragmentation of the domestic market.
There are many ways in which standards can contribute to the UK’s wider industrial strategy post-Brexit, building on our participation in the global standards system – which is not in doubt – and our
continued membership of the regional bodies CEN and CENELEC. Influencing standards will accelerate take up of UK industry knowledge and practices, but the greatest opportunity will be to secure advantage for UK industry and engineers through the soft power that influencing and using international and European industry standards brings us around the world.