Comment: Brexit at the speed of light?

29. Jun 2016

What will now happen in the lighting design world in the UK??

by Richard Taylor

RT - 4

I will choose my words very carefully, since I genuinely do not want to polarize, so following possibly the biggest decision of a European country in post-war history, one logical question in the sphere of lighting and lighting design is “what does Brexit mean for our lighting scene?”

I, like many, if not all of my friends, colleagues and acquaintances in the industry, was surprised at the final result of the referendum. I have no wish to speculate on whether the claims from either side were accurate or not – that is a job for politicians, lawyers and, much later, historians, but until about 2 am on Friday morning I truly believed that the UK would remain a member of the European Union. With the votes coming in thick and fast, I went to bed at about 4, and by 5:30 I was downstairs watching the TV, receiving the effectively final confirmation that article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be on its way. In factual terms, what is happening and what could happen next?

I left the UK in 1992 to embark on my career in product design, manufacturing, marketing and strategy for lighting companies. I have lived and worked in many countries around the EU and indeed the world. I truly believe that where I am today would not have been possible without that freedom to meet other people, other cultures, other ways of looking at things, and also to learn some languages. So therefore as a proud Mancunian, I have developed hugely thanks to these opportunities. Whilst these freedoms will hopefully exist in the future, the precise nature of them is unknown. I still volunteer for projects developing education in the industry all over the world, I consult for highly developed companies, and this forms this personal perspective.

Less than three hours after the results were public, two major clients of mine called me to discuss their concerns, including abandoning a significant investment project into the UK. Scaremongering? Not at all, just the new, if temporary reality. The result of the referendum does mean that they are considering their positions until at least 2017, not really knowing where whatever may be left of the UK will align itself with the EU framework. Who can blame them?

As industry professionals, we may not always delight in ENEC and CE guidelines, but they give us a common ground for education, discussion, specification and understanding. I know that some will assert that nothing will change, but it’s hard to imagine how freeing the UK from Brussels’ “red tape” is realistic if, at the same time, UK designers and specifiers still have to abide by those rules in their daily business. Manufacturers on both sides of the North Sea are unlikely to build separate product lines for British and European luminaires. I know many of the especially London-based designers have a huge amount of work in the Middle East and Asia – which standards should be deployed there? British Standards have merged with European standards, so do we really want to re-write our own codes and practices again? I don’t believe that will happen, nor should it.

The lighting design and spec community is not a large population. Anyone attending PLDC, Light+Building or any other event, I believe, was impressed and enthused by the atmosphere of internationalism as well as the blend of cultures and perspectives in the halls, the lecture theatres and at the events. The world is growing closer together. Brexit is not a step in that direction, unless “independence and freedom from ___ [fill in your personal blanks]” has a very different meaning from any that I can connect with it.


Drawing on Brexit by Francesco Iannone

In terms of factual and immediate impact, at least until what’s left of the government decides what to do with the more than confused situation, what’s happening?
•    Sterling is, as I write this, at its lowest level against the US dollar since 2007 and has dropped by more than 12% against Euro since the beginning of this year. This can only make procuring components (for UK manufacturers) more expensive, and importing products even more so. We live and work in an interconnected world – the UK doesn’t make many LEDs or many drivers, so they will still come in from overseas, as will the raw materials that form the infrastructure of our products. Will this recover? I’m an engineer, not a financial expert, but The Economist, which I have read since being about 8 years old, suggests it will take a long time.
•    It is also very likely that EU funding for projects in the UK will dry up quite quickly, challenging finances for a variety of large, worthy and exciting projects. By the elimination of UK payments into the EU, some of the magnificent projects throughout Europe that British designers have worked on would not have been possible – the future of those projects, with Germany left as the last large net contributor, is uncertain. Should some countries have had new airports or stations? Well, did the UK need multi-million EU funding for their projects? Life, in almost every context, is about giving and taking.
•    Although visiting the UK may become cheaper, we usually travel to our clients. As a member of the consultative committee to the UK’s largest airport, I am not sure how much people know about where we, as a country, benefit from the “Open Skies” agreement, and the “nine freedoms” within Europe, but professionally speaking, it is hard to imagine that ticket prices can now go anywhere other than up or how border control lines could get shorter.
•    Above all, I am hugely concerned about the impact for the next generations of lighting designers. The profession is sadly undervalued, but hugely important to the quality of our indoor and outdoor built environments, and without the work and research performed, the industry will be poorer. The EU Erasmus programme supports cross-border studies and I benefited from the scheme even back in the early nineties. We need lighting design and lighting designers! It is hard to imagine how an independent UK could have the hubris to try to remain part of the network, unless we continue to support the programme as a non-EU country.

Since every debate has at least two sides, what good can come of this? It would be nice to think that UK lighting manufacturing will develop and evolve to compete on the international stage. We have not pulled up the drawbridges, so maybe a cheaper UK will become more attractive to foreign investment from overseas countries, interested in developing or producing products here. Hypothetically, if some of the advertised “savings” from not paying into the EU are funneled into education, research and development, the UK could take a new position as a lighting research heartland. These are long-term ambitions, but it would be disingenuous to dismiss them.

What happens next is up to our political leaders and their parties, and it is entirely possible that, as the situation evolves, the next steps may be entirely different from those that seem likely at the moment.
Nothing is clear-cut at the moment, and both people and countries are resilient so I would like to think that things will settle down soon. The European lighting industry will not stop, and designers, specifiers and manufacturers are all open for business. At the same time, I do believe that unless the “Brexit-full” that obviously won marginal public favour turns into a very different “Brexit super-light”, things may be different for a long time since uncertainty, blame, division and acrimony form a poisoned chalice for any group of people.

Richard Taylor

My opinion:

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Martin Conboy
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This is treadful writing. It says nothing and seems to be little more than an received synopsis of knee jerk opinions gleaned from – where? Mostly it promotes fear. It reads like a, political handout from the stay side of the debate? Certainly the lighting industry is going to respond to whatever new realities come along. However, could there be a silver lining? Perhaps it will promote smaller home grown lighting design firms who don’t have to compete with multinationals for work. On the issue of the young, why does the writer have so little faith in them.? Could it… Read more »

Richard Taylor
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Richard Taylor

Dear Martin. I am not sure if “treadful” is the same as “dreadful” but thanks for your comments anyway – this was an expression of my opinion as someone who works with and for the European lighting profession, based now in the UK but also having lived and worked in other countries. I deliberately included possible silver linings including local investment, training, reach and development, as I also reflected upon the very genuine concerns of many specifiers, designers and young professionals within the industry, both in the UK and in continental Europe. One can always suggest that such concerns are… Read more »

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