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Improved rental volumes helped Surrey-based plant hirer Ashtead Group to more than double pre-tax profits to £3.3 million for the half ending October (1992: £1.6 million).The firm has raised its volumes by 19 per cent during the half by attracting some 1,400 more customers and diversifying into new rental markets such as local authorities and water companies.'Our policy has been to move metal,' said chairman Peter Lewis. He also points to the group's perseverance in keeping open all its 58 UK rental depots during the recession and maintaining its workforce.Ashtead has also been helped by modest rises of 2-3 per cent in hire rates since last spring, although these are only partly reversing the heavy rate reductions in the industry since 1990.'It's a better place to be, it has stopped getting worse,' said Mr Lewis.Operating profit at the company's UK plant arm, A-Plant, increased to £2.6 million from £1.5 million last time.In the US, Ashtead's Sunbelt subsidiary increased operating profits to £442,000 from £74,000 last time and opened a sixth depot in Charleston, South Carolina.The firm's survey and inspection rentals business, Ashtead Technology, improved operating profits to £603,000 from £489,000.The group's dividend was raised by 15 per cent and Mr Lewis said the company planned to increase capital expenditure to £8.5 million from £6.5 million last time.Ashtead is also seeking acquisitions to increase its UK network of depots to around 130. After raising £20 million in a rights issue last November, the company has £8 million in cash. CONSTRUCTION NEWS