The sale of Taylor Woodrow, construction of the Gherkin, the introduction of the Strategic Forum, an agonising recession, and a generally improving, although sometimes erratic, death toll – the past 10 years has had many highs and lows. Here are our top five.
1. Laing for sale
It was without a doubt the coup of the decade. John Laing, the industry’s best-known firm – and the breeding ground for some of construction’s biggest talent, including Olympic Delivery Authority chairman John Armitt – was pulling out of contracting.
The 150-year-old business that had worked on a string of high-profile projects, including the Sizewell B nuclear reactor and the Second Severn Crossing, was stepping aside.
Not only that, but it was picked up for a mere quid by £200 million turnover concrete pourer O’Rourke - a subbie taking over a giant. It proved a spectacular story.
The firm had announced its decision to pull out of construction in November 2000 and was expected to be purchased by a big foreign firm. At the time it was also estimated the division would go for about £100m, but the price was substantially reduced as spiralling losses on its fixed-price contracts, such as the Cardiff Millennium Stadium, came to light.
Now the multinational Laing O’Rourke turns over £4.1 billion a year. In the coming decade it is expected to remodel itself as a low-cost supplier in a bid to move even further up the top 10 ladder.
2. The construction – and legal rows – of Wembley Stadium
Wembley Stadium should have been one of our industry’s greatest triumphs – a landmark project for one of the UK’s finest to hang its hat on. But as one source told CN in late 2000, just after the contract was signed with Australian firm Multiplex: “The whole thing is an absolute tragedy. It’s the job to rebuild the home of English football and nobody wanted to do it. We were not going to accept the risk on the job.”
Wembley National Stadium claimed to have 16 interested parties, but a Bovis Multiplex joint venture (which was booted off the project only for Multiplex to return alone just days later with a cheaper bid) was the only team to tender.
The project was then so late, and so over-budget, that it spawned a huge amount of litigation between many of the parties involved – including Multiplex’s £253m claim against designers Mott MacDonald, the largest construction writ ever to enter the courts.
The litigation is set to be tried from January 2011. A ruling should be handed down by Christmas that year – although, as with most Wembley-related litigation, an appeal could drag the row further into the next decade.
3. Hatfield changes the railways
In October 2000, a London-to-Leeds train hit a cracked rail at Hatfield, in Hertfordshire, while travelling at more than 100mph, killing four people. Although the death toll was lower than in some other incidents, the disaster exposed major shortcomings in national railway infrastructure company Railtrack and triggered its re-nationalisation.
Railtrack, which had divested much of its engineering knowledge to its contractors, was forced to impose more than 1,200 emergency speed restrictions and begin a nationwide track replacement programme.
It could not pay the £733m bill for repairs and compensation, and was put into administration in October 2001. The not-for-profit Network Rail was then set up, effectively putting the railways back under public sector control and ending the way contractors had worked on the railways for many years.
4. Prescott’s safety summit
In February 2001, deputy prime minister John Prescott demanded a crisis meeting of construction leaders after 105 workers were killed in one of the industry’s blackest years. It was the first time construction safety had really emerged as a national issue, and the Government wanted to tell contractors enough was enough.
All the major bosses attended and, sources say, safety was taken much more seriously from then on.
Mr Prescott called for a 40 per cent reduction in deaths and serious injuries by 2005 and a 66 per cent reduction by 2010. And while the industry has failed to meet this target, it has substantially reduced its fatality rates in recent years – a trend that looks set to continue.
5. And the winner is… London
The timing couldn’t have been better. While construction suffered through the worst recession since the 1930s, contractors at least had a glimmer of light in the packages being handed out over at the 2012 Olympic Park.
The Olympic Delivery Authority boasts a total construction budget of £5.3bn. While most of the major deals have been done, there are still more than £1bn of contracts to be handed out. Construction is so far said to be on time and on budget, and should all wrap up in 2011 ready for pre-Games test events at the sites.