Consultant to work with Chinese government on cities the size of European capitals, each housing up to 6 million

Atkins has been approached by the Chinese government to draw up groundbreaking plans for up to 50 cities the size of London in the west of China.

The firm has been asked to draw up initial proposals for six clusters of eight cities in China – 48 cities in all. Each is to contain between five and six million people.

The approach underlines the attractiveness of UK firms to the Chinese government as it looks to manage rapid growth in population and economy.

Keith Clarke, Atkins’ chief executive, said his firm had been approached by the Chinese Ministry of Construction to draw up a strategic plan for designing the cities.

He said: “We were approached by the Chinese Ministry of Construction to help them plan these ideas. It’s really the first academic assessment of them. The population numbers are huge.”

Clarke said that Atkins would be engaged in strategic planning for the cities, covering design and transportation issues as well as trying to create sustainable urban areas.

The firm could incorporate some of the ideas used by fellow consultant Arup on the celebrated “eco-city” on an island off Shanghai, which Atkins had input into at an earlier stage.

The population numbers are huge

Keith Clarke, Atkins chief executive

The Chinese government is trying to solve the problem of unemployment in major cities such as Shanghai caused by former agricultural workers migrating to urban areas in search of higher paid jobs.

Although the Chinese economy is booming, it is still not creating enough jobs in the established urban centres. The Chinese government is therefore looking to create a series of urban areas from scratch.

At last week’s Thames Gateway Forum, London mayor Ken Livingstone emphasised the role migrant Chinese workers could play in a revamped Thames Gateway.

Livingstone said the Greater London Authority would be setting up an office in Beijing to cement relations with China. He said New York and London would be the two business centres that would attract Chinese investment in 21st century. He added that he wanted London to be “China’s base in Europe”.

His call has already been picked up by the Thames Gateway South Essex Partnership, which is planning to host the Chinese Olympic team when it trains for the 2012 Games.

The partnership wants to use the Olympics to create commercial links with China to boost regeneration in Essex. It is specifically looking for investors to fund sports facilities in the area.