Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to choose his trip to China to fire the starting gun for bids to win £11.8bn worth of High Speed 2 (HS2) civils construction contracts back home was an interesting one.
Chiefly done as a none-too-subtle attempt to get Chinese investors interested in part-funding the scheme, you sense it was also intended to provoke the still far from perfect UK construction industry.
Osborne and his fellow ministers are surely still more than a little aggrieved at being forced to scale back the government’s rail electrification programme earlier this year, and maybe the move to let the Chinese hear the HS2 news first and first-hand was a heavy hint that there are others out there who can step up and step in.
Certainly some of the industry response suggests that threat has been inferred. First out of the trap was the High Speed Rail Industry Leaders (HSRIL), a loose group of mainly UK-based consultants and contractors with big rail teams. It was keen to stress that the industry understood the responsibility to deliver and that it was “ready, willing and able to do so.”
Similarly keen to push UK interests was the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). Its chief executive Nelson Ogunshakin rightly highlighted the experience gained by UK-based consultants on projects such as London 2012, the Birmingham New Street Station remodelling and Crossrail. The ACE also warned the chancellor that in his “rush” to secure foreign investment, he “risks undermining the ability of UK firms to benefit from the work”.
“We must ensure that UK engineering companies do not miss out on what would be an outstanding opportunity to develop the skills of its workforce, increase their expertise, and export what they have learnt to the global market,” said Ogunshakin.
That is certainly one view. Interestingly the ICE has taken a slightly different one. It used Osborne’s fundraising tour of China to announce its own Chinese relations building programme: an employee exchange scheme agreement with the China International Contractors Association.
The agreement, signed in the presence of Osborne and commercial secretary to the Treasury Lord O’Neill, will kick off gently with Mott MacDonald taking an employee from China Railway Construction Company (CRCC) into its Manchester office next month for a three month placement.
More will follow in what is most certainly not going to be a one-way information exchange. Yes, China has a huge infrastructure programme itself and there is much I am sure its engineers can learn from the UK - particularly around safety for which the UK (on major projects at least) has a comparatively enviable record. But there is also much the UK can learn from China around major project delivery.
That’s the message from the ICE - and it’s a good one. We - the UK - aren’t world leaders in high speed rail delivery. We just can’t be - we haven’t delivered a high speed line for over a decade. So we need to learn from others, and working collaboratively from the start has to be the way forward.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor