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A change in the mix

THERE is a whiff of change in the air, a hint that the construction industry's fortunes are in a state of flux. The years of an exuberant commercial sector fuelling sustained growth appear to be coming to an end.

Despite a little rally in July the Glenigan figures, looked at in the round, do point to an end to the commercial construction boom.

But this is not really bad news, says Martin Hewes of Hewes and Associates: 'As one sector goes down you always hope something is going to come up and that seems to be the case. The question is, as the commercial sector declines, how long will the promised public work take to come through?

'There is no doubt the commercial sector is coming off the boil and the figures from Glenigan echo the government orders statistics for the commercial sector. These show a decline for three consecutive quarters. This is the first time that has happened since 1993.'

The impact of this will be significant, because of the sheer size of the commercial sector and the fact that it has enjoyed such strong growth over the past few years.

But Mr Hewes says: 'The encouraging point in the figures is that, unlike the end of the commercial boom in the late 1980s, we do not seem to be heading for a catastrophic collapse. Given the current trend in work we are predicting a decline of about 10 per cent in total over 2001 and 2002.'

Meanwhile, Mr Hewes foresees a change in the mix of new work with more integrated schemes combining commercial, residential and leisure, as well as a shift in the regional spread of work.

'We are already seeing a change in the regional growth rates, with the Midlands coming up, and we can expect this to spread further north, ' he says.

'One of the factors in the SouthEast is the availability of land for commercial schemes. There is relative less in the South-East, which may make it easier for projects in the North to get off the ground.

Mr Hewes expect some of the decline in the commercial sector, as far as building is concerned, to be offset by the expected rise in public sector building work stemming from the money promised for hospitals and schools.

Despite that, with the other big sector - housing - likely to remain flat, he does expect a falling off in building work.

'Overall we expect the building sector to reduce by 2 per cent this year and 1 per cent next year before recovering in 2002. But this slight recession does come after a very long sustained period of growth, ' says Mr Hewes.

'But, while the building sector is likely to decline, looking at construction as a whole, the massive growth expected in the civils sector will more than fill the gap.

We expect growth in the civils sector of 5 per cent in 2001 and of 9 per cent in 2002.'