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Coming down on the up side

Demolition contractors are enjoying their best workloads in years. David Taylor reports

DEMOLITION often seems such a final act; the last chapter in the life of an old building. But in

reality it is right at the sharp end of construction.

A rising economy means out with the old and in with the new, so when things pick up, buildings start coming down.

That is why the demolition industry is enjoying its healthiest period since the onset of recession some seven years ago.

John Hall, managing director of John F Hunt Demolition has no doubts about the state of the

industry, and his role in it.

His firm's turnover for the first half of the current financial year has already exceeded £9 million; 'But we did less than £9 million worth of business for the whole of 1996/7,' he says. Mr Hall says he is looking forward to a 1997/8 turn-over of between £12 million to £15 million.

John F Hunt has landed some choice contracts; from the City of London and a host of refurbishment projects, to Hunt's most high-profile job - the demolition of Cardiff Arms Park, the hallowed home of Welsh rugby.

Cardiff is a prime example of the type of work that would have been unheard of less than five years ago. Fuelled by National Lottery funds, the project is one of a clutch of high-value jobs made possible as a result.

'Look at the major schemes around today. What gave them all a boost? Lottery money!' says Mr Hall.

'People want to see money from the Lottery spent on highly visible schemes such as the new Tate Gallery extension and the redevelopment of Sadler's Wells theatre in London,' observes Mr Hall.

Similarly upbeat is Steve Balyski, projects co-ordinator with Manchester- based Connell Bros. Although less bullish than Mr Hall, Mr Balyski confirms that life is relatively good for demolition contractors these days.

Connell has grown from being a small local operator to being a truly national player in the course of just two years. 'To grow, you have to go where the work is; you can't afford to stay at home any more,' says Mr Balyski.

Both he and Mr Hall foresee continued growth for demolition contractors for at least the next two years. 'I can't see it levelling off. The work's there, so we're just going to keep plugging away,' says Mr Balyski.

Not all the work is driven by the Lottery or, indeed, the Millennium Commission.

Connell also specialises in the nuclear and chemical engineering sectors. Both are buoyant.

'There's a considerable amount of nuclear decommissioning going on,' says Mr Balyski, 'and a lot of the chemical companies are changing to more efficient plant.'

Not every demolition contractor can tackle this sort of work, and the process of prequalification can be arduous, he says.

The election of New Labour in May has had little measurable effect on the demolition sector,

besides the release of local authority housing receipts.

This has freed up some very welcome extra spending, says Mr Hall.

In some parts of the country, it has actually effected a policy U-turn as local authorities choose to demolish and replace old tower blocks rather than refurbish.

John F Hunt has moved quickly to exploit this trend and has published a brochure extolling its

expertise in reducing tower blocks to rubble.

'We are talking to every London borough and lots of other local authorities besides,' confirms Mr Hall. He speaks of one London authority which has abandoned an ambitious refurbishment programme in favour of demolition and replacement.

But it's not just workload that has moved forward.

Both Mr Hall and Mr Balyski insist that working practices have improved immeasurably.

'The CDM's (the Construction Design and Management regulations) are the best thing to havehappened to us,' says Mr Hall.

The new regime has swept away the old ramshackle working methods, improving safety and

efficiency in equal measure, he says. 'Clients are more demanding today... and method statements are much more specific,' adds Mr Hall.

John F Hunt has a full time site engineer and project manager on every site; every job has a detailed health and safety plan.

'We're like a mini-main contractor,' he adds.

Among all the brave talk, a note of caution comes from the indus-try's trade body itself.

John McGregor, national secretary of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors, says the upturn is 'patchy', depending on the region. London and the South-East is, not surprisingly, the most healthy.

'But prices are still tight. There is a hangover from the recession and it's holding prices down,' warns Mr McGregor.

'Things are better than they were three or four years ago, but because things were bad then, we shouldn't be banging the drum too loudly this time.'