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Soft landing after the bumpy ride?

COMPARED with the desperate years of the early 1990s, 1997 was, on balance, a good time to be in construction.

There were problems, needless to say. Where would construction be without something to complain about?

But workload rose, margins improved (although they are still pitifully thin compared with almost every other major industry) and the high number of bitter disputes and company collapses looked to be waning.

Of course, the year's big event was Labour's landslide. Gordon Brown's accession to the Chancellorship - and the interest rate rises that followed - took the heat out of the construction market, without doubt for the better.

The new government's stated aim of weaning construction off its destructive addiction to the boom-bust cycle was widely welcomed. But if ministers are successful in making the peaks and troughs less savage, then they will rightly look to exact a high price from contractors.

For years, the industry's leaders have complained that extreme swings in workload have hampered construction's ability to fund effective investment in IT, training, research and innovation. So could it be that construction as a whole is at last beginning to change substantially for the better, assisted by a more stable economic framework? Or is this all horribly optimistic?

It was often said of Margaret Thatcher that her genius rested in her ability to ensure the economic cycle coincided with the electoral one.

The new Labour administration is at least as focused on power as was Mrs Thatcher's and has a majority big enough to ensure that it can ignore short-term rebellions.

That being so, we should have a reasonably comfortable 1998 followed by a dip in the last half of 1999 and early 2000; whereupon the market will pick up again in time for a general election in the autumn of 2001. A scenario described by economists as a 'soft landing' - and which would be of huge benefit to construction.

It would not do, though, to get too comfortable.

The phrase 'soft landing' has a history. It was in common parlance in the late 1980s, when Chancellor Nigel Lawson was widely credited with having changed the nature of British capitalism. And we know what happened in 1990. Here's hoping history does not repeat itself.

Happy New Year.