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Overseas opportunities dwarf the scale of UK cuts

New transport secretary Philip Hammond has this week declared his intention to ensure Crossrail provides the best value for the public spend. Quite right of course.

It’s a £15.9bn project and as a taxpayer and observer of the construction industry’s past record on delivering major transport schemes, I am sure that, for a new man in the job, it is a matter worth investigating.

But I have to say that I’m intrigued to hear that he has chosen to discuss this crucial issue with the London mayor Boris Johnson. His unerring support for the project is certainly always welcome but there are surely other people (such as the engineers) more suited to answering his questions.

“Civil engineers remain less than happy with the way we as a profession influence such political discussions”

Sadly, of course, the nature of the conversation is likely to be more around what Hammond can afford to lose politically than economically. Prepare then, at best, to see some programme delays.

As the ICE’s membership satisfaction survey points out this week, civil engineers remain less than happy with the way we as a profession influence such political discussions. We are set to see millions wiped from spending in our sectors in the next few months.

I am writing these words between sessions at the Arabian World Construction Summit in Abu Dhabi. And with the exception of Dubai, you can forget any talk of the recent global financial downturn scaling back ambition in this region.

The smallest of the top 50 construction projects in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is still worth $2.7bn (£1.9bn). The GCC market is still reckoned to have some £1.7 trillion worth of projects planned or underway and with increased public sector investment is set to see construction growth of at least 5% over the next five years.

Whether it is the £17bn GCC Railway project, the £4.9bn Abu Dhabi Metro or the £2.7bn Mafraq to Ghuweifat PPP road project, the scale of the vision in this region remains awesome.

Listening to chanecellor George Osborne’s sombre tones as he delivered - with a degree of almost breathless excitement - his first wave of public sector cuts, his £6.2bn figure seemed a bit trivial compared to those I have become used to here.

“The reality is that UK engineering firms and UK engineers are active and respected globally. We must remind ourselves that while there is a big job to do in the UK”

On the list of GCC projects it is interesting to note the number of UK firms involved in delivery. All three of the projects mentioned above have UK firms in key influential roles.

It’s worth remembering that as the UK faces cuts, British firms are increasingly seeking their fortune outside the UK and in many cases are now earning the overwhelming majority of their fees abroad. The reality is that UK engineering firms and UK engineers are active and respected globally. We must remind ourselves that while there is a big job to do in the UK, we are at the heart of a global industry in which there is still plenty of opportunity to make a decent margin.

» Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Readers' comments (2)

  • I'm glad to hear there is increasing overseas engineering oportunities for UK consultants. But at the same time as ICE supports new projects, it should also be ensuring that they have a low (non-discounted) carbon whole life carbon cost, that the EI is absolute minimum and that the lot of low income workers in sweat shops and slums are all high priorities, not sops to clients, politicians and media.

    Richard Wilson, Project Director, Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor

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  • Engineering is now truely a global profession - in my own experience, you are much better off leaving the UK to seek better opportunities.
    Foreign companies buying up UK firms (then closing offices) and UK firms outsourcing design work are only making the problems more acute.
    By the time the ICE acts it will doubtless be too late.

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