China is ravenous for British expertise. And no wonder: in 20 years’ time it could account for more than half of the global market for construction services

In five weeks’ time the eyes of the world will be on China as the 2008 Olympic Games get under way. Unlike the London Games, legacy has not been on Beijing’s agenda. Instead these Games and their flagship venues have been about projecting an image of a strident industrial superpower – typified in the confident and indulgent Bird’s Nest stadium. And it’s not just the Olympic venues that are being built as beacons of this new-found Chinese confidence.

What often links these schemes is British expertise – expertise that is also being harnessed to re-house the thousands of people devastated by the Sichuan earthquake. China is ravenous for British know-how. And no wonder: it has a construction market worth £655bn a year by 2010 and in 20 years’ time it could account for more than half of the global market for construction services. As John Prescott, a member of the UK’s China Taskforce, writes this week, more than 1,000 new cities will be needed as well as some 100 airports.

That’s not to say that the streets of Beijing are paved with gold. In some areas corruption is rife, it’s a difficult market to penetrate the market and firms risk having their ideas absorbed and then shown the door. What’s more, it is still difficult for British and other overseas firms to be granted licences that allow them to work on projects from start to finish. Let’s hope that the legacy of the Beijing Games 2008 will be a more open trading partner – it will do more than anything to help bridge the £11bn trading chasm between the two economies.

Short-sighted tories

We’re not just moving into a new era of economic risk and uncertainty, but now one of political uncertainty. The government’s flagship eco-town policy is being opposed by the Tories, as the backlash against the idea gathers pace. With the Tories looking like they have a chance at the next general election, it’s not surprising that some councils are pulling out of the scheme and developers are beginning to question whether it’s worth investing the £1.5m needed to make it to the next stage of the competition.

But just remember that by 2010 we’ll be screaming for new housing after the drought brought on by the credit crunch. Just how do the Tories expect to meet this demand? They seem to be taking an equally short-sighted view on energy, having opposed measures to speed up planning on large infrastructure projects. At our conference on building new nuclear power stations this week, Martin Lawrence, EDF Energy’s chief operating officer, urged the government not to let up for a second. He called for “a settled planning system” to allow investment to go ahead. Any prospects of going back to a planning system that took seven years to give Sizewell B the go-ahead is likely to deter investors such as EDF.

It’s all very well the Tories pleasing middle England by appeasing Nimbys, but having to turn off the TV because there’s no power isn’t going to win many votes either, is it?