If you are looking around the world for potential big construction markets, India must be considered pretty hot. The main attraction for British construction is the £8bn-plus, mainly World Bank-financed road construction programme announced in December (see News).
Highways Agency chief executive Lawrie Haynes is travelling to India this weekend to sell British roads expertise. Using the Agency's reputation and influence he also hopes to convince the Indian government British firms are best placed to help.
'I see us having a role now trying to help British companies,' says Haynes. 'Being a good-practice ambassador if you like.'
On his five-day trip he er John Prescott and company bosses including Kvaerner Construction chief executive Keith Clarke and Mott MacDonald chairman Tim Thirlwall.
Haynes accompanied Agency network and customer services director Peter Nutt to a roads conference in India before Christmas. Both gave presentations about procurement strategy and met government and World Bank officials.
'They were very interested in the PFI,' says Haynes. 'They were also interested in the expertise that is in the UK and I think they are looking to convince British industry there is a very big market in India for them.'
India is not backward when it comes to construction. However, the size of the country and local economic structure means most construction projects are labour intensive but small scale.
'Previously the Indian government was looking at contracts of about 20km,' says Haynes. 'My advice to them was that on a programme of this size they should be looking at contracts of 100km where you can get the big economies of scale. This is where I think British industry would have a very clear competitive advantage.'
The Agency increasingly sees providing the British construction industry with this type of help and information as part of its role. It signed a technology exchange deal with Japan about 18 months ago and is now talking to the Australian government about a similar arrangement. It has also translated design codes into Chinese to help British firms in China.
Skills now sought in India for such a massive construction programme include project management, the use of capital equipment, value engineering and construction management.
But, adds Haynes: 'It is a two-way thing - the government in India has got to recognise that if UK companies are going to go in there it will take massive investment. It has got to be attractive enough to make them go into it.'
'One thing I would say is: 'Do not underestimate the ability of the Indian authorities or the Indian industry',' he insists. 'Not only are they very bright but they are also very entrepreneurial. There should not be any corporate arrogance by British companies. They have got to go in there and work on a partnership basis.'
Haynes hopes to encourage the Department of Trade & Industry to hold a conference later in the year to discuss the findings from the trip.