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Invest in the investors

UK and international cities are beginning to realise their place on the world stage and understand how one or two key interventions can make a big difference.

Part of the role of the multi-disciplinary consultancy in the future will be to help them access foreign direct investment to effect change more rapidly

“There’s a huge amount of jostling for global position among cities right now,” says Atkins’ cities director Janet Miller. “And many renewals projects and schemes these days are not just about liveability – they’re about cities differentiating themselves and finding ways of attracting new talent.” 

With the North-versus-South debate and arguments about the value of rebalancing the economy gaining prominence in the UK media, Miller thinks even small British cities are beginning to take a view of their place in the wider scheme of things. 

“Even a city like Peterborough, for example, has an ambition for a major national museum, to help put it on the map so that it’s part of the Cambridge and east of England knowledge economy landscape,” she explains.

“It’s increasingly becoming a question of identifying the needs and looking at a long-term time frame for cities to see what are the key issues that need to be addressed.” 

Philip Chiang, Atkins 

In such a scenario, cities are realising that one or two key interventions can help to solve a number of problems. “The obvious one is transport,” Miller says. “A good transport system can address at once several intractable problems, such as housing, talent drain, social inequality and energy use. Clearly HS2 and HS3 are key to this new holistic approach – where cities are taking an overview and seeing how connectivity and sharing between cities can work to the benefit of the UK.”

From an engineering side, Miller thinks transit-oriented development is becoming important in terms of how cities grow. “It’s about compactness and efficient use of urban space, it’s about developing above and below ground,” she says. “A rail station isn’t just a rail station any more, it’s a mixed use development – it’s retail, it’s leisure, it’s commercial space. Hong Kong is a real exemplar of this – it brought together world specialists in things like tunnelling and underground space planning to get a really good transit oriented development.” Such an overview isn’t just about interconnectivity on a national basis, of course. Any self-respecting global city also ought to have one eye focused on attracting foreign direct investment (FDI) – especially seeing as other international cities are striving to do the same.


Philip Chiang, Atkins’ infrastructure director for Asia Pacific, uses the example of Colombo in Sri Lanka. “We are working right now on the Port City Project which will create an extension of the city where it’s going to become something very iconic, “ he says. “We’re working with foreign direct investment, in this case working with Chinese contractors, to create an attraction for the city to bring jobs, opportunities and further investment.” 

With £100bn of foreign money predicted to be spent in the UK by 2025, Miller and Chiang both think that the role of the consultant will have to change as a consequence. 

“In Atkins we are working on the implications and opportunities which arise from that amount of investment. We’re starting to use our knowledge of Chinese investors and Chinese contractors, for example, and our understanding of individual cities, their needs and the political, operating and regulatory environment to bring the two opportunities together,” says Miller. 

Chiang thinks international multi-disciplinary firms will be at an advantage in advising cities and local governments how to prioritise their spending because they have experience of dealing with diverse energy, transportation, power and water projects in different markets. 

“In places like Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Rwanda, it’s increasingly becoming a question of identifying the needs and looking at a long-term time frame for the cities to see what are the key issues that need to be addressed,” he says. “Then you try to bring in foreign direct investment or IFIs to see how we can actually help these cities in less developed countries.” 


But investors – like engineering clients – need to be aware of risks, and Chiang thinks the role of a consultancy will increasingly be to help them understand them: “Investors need to understand the investment, need to understand the risk so they can actually develop a real sense of return and, as engineering consultants, it’s our job to help facilitate that,” he says. 

“Quite often in the UK it’s not just about whether we have the steel or the concrete to build the project. It’s more a question of: what are the policies, what are the procedures, what are the requirements, what are the timeframes people can expect and then to relate that to a client’s expectations,” he says. “That’s paramount because investors need to understand that – without that understanding, all it really takes is for a few bad projects for it all to fall apart.” 

The same applies in foreign markets where the satellite office of a consultancy firm based in Dubai, for example, might be better equipped to explain the local idiosyncrasies of a project in the Middle East to a foreign investor than one that is based in London. Again, Miller thinks international firms will be well-equipped to meet this need: “It will really need global companies to reassure these FDI clients so that they can be comfortable that someone knows and understands their culture and also the culture of the country where the project is based.” 

In the case of the Colombo Port City project, Chiang says Atkins’ remit has extended beyond providing investment advice to actually managing the different contractors on the project. “We’re sending project directors there to actually manage the contractors that are doing the land reclamation for the next three years because the investors are employing various consultants to do the master plan and the transportation plan,” he says. “So we’ve not just helped to facilitate the overall design, we’ve also helped facilitate the management and the risk of the project. That’s paramount in any sort of investment anyone makes.”

Produced in association with Atkins.

Columbo finds the formula

The Colombo Port City project is a 15-year project funded by Chinese investors. The plan is to build an offshore city in Colombo on reclaimed land using construction resources from the Colombo Harbour Expansion project currently underway near the site of the proposed city. 

The total area of sea due to be reclaimed is 450 acres and – in a sign of how Colombo wants to position itself on the world map – plans include a proposal to include a Formula 1 racing track. 

The New Port City is said to be the concept of president Mahinda Rajapaska who was apparently inspired while inspecting the landfill being constructed for the Colombo South Port.

A multidisciplinary team of economists, urban planners, urban designers, marina designers and water and coastal engineers from Atkins’ Asia Pacific and UK businesses is involved in the project and the reclamation is being carried out by the China Harbour Engineering Corporation. 

“Everybody knows that Colombo is a gateway of foreign investment into India, so what the city really needs is to attract investments so the banks can be based there and people can be stationed there,” says Philip Chiang, Atkins’ infrastructure director for Asia Pacific. “But right now the environment is not conducive to those investments. This project will create a main attraction for the city to identify itself on the world stage and what that brings is jobs, opportunity and investment.”   

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