We must embrace international opportunities

4 min read

Although you wouldn’t know it from the way we talk about it sometimes, the British construction industry is the envy of the world. 

We are building complicated and challenging projects, and finding innovative solutions that allow us to do so quickly, safely and cost effectively.

Across the world, British construction specialists are helping to deliver some of the world’s most complex and challenging projects; whether that’s our star architects, project managers or cost consultants. 

At Mace alone we’re involved in everything from the Pan-American Games in Peru to delivering schools and health infrastructure in Australia. 

That international trade is a testament to the strength of our professional standards and the success of our industry at home. 

It also represents a huge opportunity for the UK. Brexit is now approaching quickly, and with that comes the possibility of forging new trading relationships across the world. 

The potential upside for our economy is huge. 

In international aviation infrastructure alone, there is nearly $1tn of new airport and expansion investment planned. Globally, there is a projected total infrastructure spend of $79tn by 2040.

If the UK could secure even a tiny percentage of that trade we could produce a huge boost for our economy. 

Many companies are already working with the Department for International Trade, the Department for International Development, the CDC Group and UK Export Finance to identify, compete for, fund and win contracts all over the world. 

To build on that success, we need to make sure the industry is ready for whatever follows after Brexit. There are huge potential advantages, but we can’t seize them unless our deal with the EU allows us to. 

Our research has shown that “free ports” – designated tariff-free zones around specific UK ports and airports, such as Heathrow or Merseyside – could unlock huge economic growth and boost productivity. 

There are thousands of these free ports across the world, and some of them – like Miami and Dubai – have seen huge, transformative economic growth. Why shouldn’t the UK be able to replicate that success?

However, this will only happen if we’re able to introduce them under the terms of our deal with the EU – and we can only take advantage of them if our sector understands the detail of that deal and has engaged with government.

The same goes for international trade deals.

Depending on the precise exit agreement – or lack of one – struck between the UK government and the EU, the UK may well be looking to sign new free trade agreements very shortly.

What does the construction sector want from those trade deals? Which regions are targets for the sector? What kind of services are the most effective to prioritise for export?

Conversely, we also need to know which parts of our industry might need protection from international actors.

Are we ready to open up even larger parts of the UK construction market to the US? How can we ensure that local companies can compete?

We can’t expect our government to guess the answers to those questions; we need to tell them our thoughts and work with them to refine their negotiating position.

At the moment, however, I don’t believe we have established our needs as an industry, and I don’t think we are currently capable of speaking with a single voice when we need to.

The Department for International Trade recently ran four policy consultations on what UK industry might want from a trade deal with Australia, the US, New Zealand and potential membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Did you know they were running? Did you submit a response? I suspect our sector is running behind many others in both our engagement with government and our understanding of our own needs.

There is a real risk that we will miss out compared to those sectors that are better able to bend the ear of government.

It is imperative that you work out what your international growth plans will be and how the government’s negotiators might be able to support them in the future; and then engage with your trade bodies and the government to make those needs clear.

Once we leave the EU, we have the chance to build our presence in a huge global market – but only if we’re ready.

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