“This is a massive initiative, the secretary of state and the prime minister are right behind it.”
That is what trade minister Greg Hands told me this morning as we sat down ahead of the official launch of Infrastructure Export: UK.
The new IE:UK partnership between government and the construction industry will for the first time see construction joint ventures picked centrally to bid as ‘Team UK’ for the world’s biggest infrastructure contracts.
The idea, put forward by industry leaders, follows on from the success of similar Department for International Trade initiatives that have paid dividends in securing UK defence and automotive firms millions of pounds in overseas deals.
The argument for UK construction is a compelling one.
With global construction investment expected to reach $15.5tr by 2030, Mr Hands believes securing a bigger piece of the construction pie is imperative, particularly in a post-Brexit Britain.
“One of the opportunities of Brexit is to take a more outward facing role in the world,” he told me. “There are obviously opportunities in the EU but most of the growth in world economy, and infrastructure is no different, will be outside of Europe.”
As part of the plan, the Department for International Trade will use its 109 global offices to gather information on local opportunities and pipelines and feed this back to the IE:UK to decide on which ones to pursue.
But it will also see the government play a bigger role in laying the groundwork for UK firms to successfully bid for work.
“We want to take on a more proactive approach,” Mr Hands promised. “We will be speaking on a government-to-government level, to ensure the UK is on a level-playing field when bidding for these contracts.”
The consortium approach is something that Mr Hands says the UK construction sector needs to get better at.
With consortiums bidding for work globally on average landing contracts worth $1.5bn, compared to only $1.1bn for single bidders, it is clear to see why this is important to IE:UK.
So, how will Team UK be picked?
A team of 16 men and, notably, only one woman, will make up the board that decides on which companies to pair together to make up the bid teams.
Mr Hands said the door was open for more to join and he is keen to grow the list of board members.
But in the adversarial environment of construction with commercial interests at stake, the theory might be easier than the practice.
Mr Hands dismissed this and said he and his co-chair Wates chairman James Wates would use their positions to ensure the decision process proceeded on a “fair and reasonable basis”.
Talking to contractors and consultants at the launch today there did seem to be genuine excitement and interest in the plans, but there was still a feeling of ’we’ve seen these government initiatives before’ from some.
Next week Number 10 hosts the inaugural IE:UK meeting, the group’s first test.
With trade secretary Liam Fox scheduled to attend, there are clear signs the government is taking the idea of construction as an export seriously.
But while the meeting might provide a clearer picture of how IE:UK will work and the first tranche of projects it will pursue, the success of the group will only be truly understood if and when a Team UK consortium lands its first contract.