The UK construction industry is key to delivering Global Britain

8 min read

Inside our own shores, it’s often not recognised that we have a hard-earned global reputation for the delivery of world-class architecture, engineering and programme management services.

Despite occasional moans about late projects at home, British firms are in demand from Governments and developers all over the world for our work, playing an instrumental role in the delivery of infrastructure and buildings that shape skylines and communities around the world.

This week the Global Britain Commission, of which I am a member, has launched its second report, “Global Britain: Where next?” In it, we reveal a new index - The Global Britain Index - which uncovers the UK’s top future trading partners and sets out which industries the UK should prioritise to maintain its place as one of the largest economies in the world.

Construction is high up that list – and for good reason.

The construction industry is among the fastest-growing in the world - set to grow by 47% between 2020 - 2030. In the UK alone the sector is growing at a rapid annual pace of 3.7% - equivalent to that of China’s industry at 3.8%. This is largely attributed to its overall competitive advantage globally, growing demand and recent government and industry partnerships which have propelled the industry forward.

This doesn’t mean that we’re expecting to see UK contractors delivering directly on the ground across the world – exporting contracting services is a challenging task and few have managed it successfully at scale. We shouldn’t limit our ambition – but we should recognise in many countries it’s a tough market to break.

What it does mean is that there is huge potential for our world-leading services – programme management, engineering, design – that we should be reaching out to grab, and a market waiting to be built for MMC-led construction products.

As part of the UK’s sector deal in 2018, the government committed an initial £170m which prioritised the development and commercialisation of offsite manufacturing technology and energy efficiency technology.

Since then, we have seen the funding for construction skills boot camps via the National Skills Fund, the creation of the Construction Leadership Council's (CLC) ConstructZero programme, and a commitment in the March 2021 Budget of £10 million investment in the use of modern methods of construction (MMC).

All of these measures are aimed at ensuring the UK remains a global leader.

We’ve also had fantastic engagement with the UK’s direct efforts to support trade, including working closely with the Department for International Trade’s advisory group on investment – on which I sit – and Infrastructure Exports: UK, co-chaired by my colleague Mark Holmes.

I believe we are already seeing the fruits of that support now.

At Mace, our international consultancy business has seen a significant uptick over the past few years in the number and scale of international projects – everywhere from Peru to Greece – and the adoption of new technologies and approaches, and support from Government, has enabled us to export more services to key growth regions such as the Middle East and the United States. Yet more needs to be done.

The opportunity on offer is enormous. Rising populations in some parts of the world has caused cities to expand exponentially, requiring more and better infrastructure from road and rail, to housing and office space, increasing the need for construction services.

Our report sets out that Ghana and Botswana - two countries that are rising up the ranks of the Global Britain Index over the last ten years, are amongst those expanding populations with some of the highest urbanisation rates in Africa. Similarly, in states like Singapore – number six on our list – there’s huge potential for UK firms to support the delivery of massive construction and infrastructure programmes.

What’s more, climate change and rapid urbanisation have brought forward many challenges but also opportunities for the UK construction industry, as many countries look beyond their borders for the best ideas to tackle complex projects.

Despite broader global economic uncertainty, at the moment we believe there will likely continue to be a steady rise in international construction procurement that the UK is well-placed to support. However, the playing field is going to become ever more competitive with other countries looking to increase their market share in this rapidly growing industry.

With the result of the upcoming Conservative leadership election due in the next few weeks, our report demonstrates a clear need for the new PM and Cabinet to make our industry a priority for a super-charged post-Brexit trade policy.

It’s clear there is a huge potential for growth if we can secure further government support and focus to maintain the UK's prominence in the market. Negotiating the right trade deals with the right countries is important to not only support the UK industry today but to secure its future as a globally competitive export industry.

But we cannot only look to Government. If our home-grown infrastructure delivery expertise is to deliver on its potential, we must all be ambitious and work together to identify opportunities for UK excellence to shine through.

This article was originally published via Building Magazine.

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