The end of the beginning

The UK may have left the EU, but it still remains a key participant in the European Standards system, says Hywel Davies

By the time you read this, the UK will have left the European Union and started engaging in international trade negotiations with the United States and our former EU colleagues. But what might this mean for the building services sector?

At 11pm GMT on 31 January, an unprecedented period of turbulence and controversy in British political history formally ended, when the UK left the EU after 48 years. It concluded three and half years of discord.

After the rout of General Rommel at El Alamein in 1942, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said: ‘This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’ And so with Brexit.

After more than three years of conflict, the UK is now an independent, sovereign state, where a democratic choice has been implemented – but we still believe in, and are part of, a rules-based international system of global trade governed by bilateral and multilateral trade agreements.

Outside the EU, we are now free to negotiate a trade deal with the US – and it would be mad not to do so, given the size of the US market, the historical links between the two countries and the ‘bond between the English-speaking peoples’. But there are real differences.

The UK joined the European Economic Community nearly 200 years after the United States won independence from us. Americans now seem greatly attracted to our monarchy, but they are a republic with an elected head of state, and the present incumbent is particularly committed to doing deals that put America first and ‘make America great again’.

In the world of building services, ASHRAE is one of the leading US bodies, and one of just six US standardsdeveloping organisations that can self-certify its standards against the procedural rules of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Its consensus-based standards-development process aims to be rigorous, transparent, balanced and robust, with participation from a range of relevant stakeholders who may not be ASHRAE members.

ASHRAE is the premier publisher of standards for many building services products and systems in North America, and is currently pressing hard for the adoption, by the US Department of Energy (DOE), of a formal rule that would direct DOE to adopt ASHRAE technical standards and test procedures under the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995.

The UK has hitherto been a part of the European Single Market, with a system of regulations and directives that govern many of the products CIBSE members specify, install, manufacture, maintain and operate. This is supported by the European Standards system, which produces thousands of standards that underpin those regulations and directives.

While we are no longer part of the EU, the UK – through its national standards body, BSI – remains a key participant in CEN, the European standards body, which is not an EU institution. BSI and CEN are currently working to negotiate changes to the CEN Statutes that would formalise continued BSI membership.

As a member of CEN, the UK adopts European Standards when they are published and withdraws conflicting ones. This has not changed.

The UK has a system of Building Regulations based on a series of functional requirements. For tragic reasons, the best known of these may be requirement B4 of Part B of the regulations, requiring that anything used in an external wall of a building shall adequately resist the spread of fire. While that requirement is now reinforced by a specific ban on combustible materials in the external walls of many buildings (see news on page 9), the person building any external wall has to satisfy the building control official that it meets requirement B4.

Approved Document B gives guidance on how that could be done – but it is only guidance, and other solutions are very clearly permitted. So who is to say that, when officials start negotiating a deal with the US covering trade in construction-related goods and services, we will not see the US pressing for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Codes to be given equal status to BS 9999 or other relevant British and European Standards?

If the NFPA Codes deliver buildings that meet the functional requirements of Part B and do not include combustible materials restricted under regulation 7, then that would appear to meet our regulations. But what if the US also argues that Regulation 7(2) – which currently defines what is deemed noncombustible by reference to a European Standard test – should be amended as part of the US-UK deal to refer to the US equivalent test as well? That will have implications for UK and European-based manufacturers.

We now know we have left the EU. We don’t know what a trade deal will look like or what challenges the forthcoming trade talks will create for our sector, but we know they are coming. And while we are currently talking to the US and EU, a quarter of the global market is in the Asia Pacific region, so we will need to cover that, too.

The price of really free trade may be eternal vigilance as trade talks unfold. Really, we’ve only just begun.