The government should seize the chance to bring Chinese investment into HS2 and construction should play its role by developing new funding models

James Wates

Every new year starts with predictions about the country’s economy in the year ahead. This year has started with speculation about the “when not if” of interest rate rises.

But in the middle of all this conjecture an equally significant economic story was reported: that the Chinese Railway Group is in discussion with Birmingham City Council to fund and build key links to the proposed HS2 network. In Birmingham’s case, connections with the planned interchange on the outskirts of the east of the city.

The government has welcomed interest from the Chinese but has thus far not confirmed that such investment would be accepted as part of the now £50bn project.

The report of this interest from the Chinese is still that - just a report, although it is clearly not without reasonable foundation.

We have the collective vision, resolve and skill to change skylines, and surely we have the wherewithal to help to change the funding models

But, subject to public interest criteria, the government should seize the prospect: not simply because any respite for the taxpayer from the bill of HS2 to be welcomed but, more importantly, because of what it says about the UK and our place in an economic world with fewer barriers.

The prime minister’s efforts to court Chinese investment should be neither underestimated nor underrated. We are now fourth on the list for Chinese investment as a rebounding British economy reminds overseas investors of just how attractive UK assets are.

The notion that such investment could play a material role in the very renewal of UK infrastructure puts an altogether different complexion on what’s possible.

The prospect of such investment should inspire confidence and, from government, determination that - as the 21st Century edges towards the second half of its second decade - there must be a concerted effort to make our infrastructure fit for purpose for the next 100 years and more.

The terms of any funding from the Chinese for HS2 is yet to be determined and decided, but whether it comes as a medium term investment and remuneration model or in the form of longer-term investment in strategic assets, the headline is the same: good news for the UK (and for the prospects for relationship stability beyond merely the economics of the piece).

But as a sector we should not leave all the heavy lifting to government. We have the collective vision, resolve and skill to change skylines, and surely we have the wherewithal to help to change the funding models by which substantial chunks of vital infrastructure renewal are delivered.

This goes for construction businesses of scale across the sector. From civil contractors to housebuilders: new forms of partnership and new models of funding will play an important role in our future success.

Sometimes this will be for local projects to build schools and health centres; on other occasions it will be for projects of national note.

The government’s role is to orchestrate and facilitate - from planning to speed of decision making. Our role is to get creative, to set the bar for thinking about collaboration. Many UK construction companies have been forced by the recession to consider new models and a returning economy should not slow that process, it should speed it.

The UK might return to and even exceed pre-Lehman growth. But we cannot go back to pre-Lehman thinking. New funding and revenue models, new partnering agreements and a willingness to consider the previously unimaginable are all ingredients of future success.

The government has demonstrated a welcome creativity in macro thinking with foreign investment in our nuclear industry and now, one hopes, in HS2.

UK construction needs to bring its own formidable thinking to bear on such challenges.

James Wates is chairman of Wates, the CITB and UKCG