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Things are looking up for pulling things down

DEMOLITION - While the collapse of one highpro. le demolition out. t may have hit the headlines last year, Alasdair Reisner finds that the rest of the sector is enjoying a period of quiet con. dence

THE NAME, it appears, was somewhat of a misnomer. When Darren Palin's outfit hit the skids last year it became clear that Cont rolled Demolit ion was anything but. Veering Wildly Demolition would perhaps have been a better title to trade under.

But if this was the fate for one of the largest and best known contractors in the sector, what on earth was happening with the rest of the building-bashers?

Fortunately Controlled Demolition was not representative of the rest of the industry, according to David Darsey, director of Kent-based demolition firm Erith.

'That could have happened to any firm that was chasing turnover, ' he says. 'Controlled Demolition was like a locomotive that was designed to pull six carriages but was actually pulling 20.

You just could not keep giving it enough fuel in terms of work to keep it going. But as far as I can tell it was a one-off in the industry.' In fact firms spoken to by Construction News say that far from struggling, the sector is actually undergoing something close to a mini-boom.

'From our point of view we have a lot of work on the books. It is mainly coming from private developers in the City. There has been a little bit more in recent months than normal. I wouldn't go as far as to say we were experiencing a boom but there is certainly an increase, ' says Steve Jack, systems and development director for Keltbray Demolition.

Mr Darsey agrees: 'We are finding things very buoyant. Like everyone else we are waiting on news about the Olympics but there is already a general upturn in the south-east of England. There is a lot of regeneration in the Thames Gateway to keep people busy. We are also seeing big spending by local authorities on schools. Everyone I am speak ing to, be they developers or cont ractors, are saying things are looking better. Our turnover has increased 20 per cent in 2004-05 and we are expect ing it to increase the same again this year.' But, like other sectors of the construction industry, an increase in workloads brings its own problems. Skills shortages are affecting demolit ion at both site and management level.

'There is a problem with staffing, ' says Mr Darsey. 'To combat this we have been going around local schools, speaking to careers advisers at each, offering on-site apprenticeships for trainees.

'But it is harder to get in management levelemployees. We have a couple of graduates working with us and have a couple of guys on day release college courses. That is the thing: as an industry we have a real problem trying to ent ice people. At the moment people would rather go into straight construction rather than demolition because demolition is wrongly seen as dodgy and dangerous.' Mr Jack agrees this issue is becom ing increasingly pressing. He says: 'The main problem is that we do not have many young people coming into the industry. In years to come that will become a bigger and bigger issue. Even with things as simple as machine drivers, everyone is struggling to get them in. They are like gold dust.' But Roy Gibbons, managing director of Button Linguard, says attempts to improve training in the industry to bring through new workers may actually be hindering those already working.

He says: 'We are seeing more NVQs. I'm not sure that is the way forward. Without wishing to malign site staff, it appears to apply white collar sk ills to blue collar workers.

'The scholars of our industry are the guys that can make their machines spin on a sixpence. They may also find PCs daunting. I do fear that the older operator will be pushed out. It is different for the younger guys, but it is these 40 and 50-year-old guys that will be passing on their skills to them.

'The older guys are the backbone of the industry but they are sometimes not conversant with new technology. I think training and assessment should be site-based with very little in the classroom based on the written word. As an employer I would never accept a piece of paper to prove someone's skill. I'd want to see them actually do the job.' Another area in which the demolition sector is dealing with a growing burden is environmental legislation. Last year saw the introduction of stiff new rules on the disposal of waste to landfill.

The construction industry, and demolition in particular, had previously been one of the largest producers of landfilled waste. How has the sector been effected by the new rules?

'The 'tipping tax' doesn't directly affect the competitiveness because everyone has to pay it, but it affects costs which have to be passed on to clients, ' says Mr Gibbons. 'Every time we take a load to the tip you have to fill out a form. Many of the smaller companies have had to take on a person just to do that. If you are a small firm, say a father and son, that is a big cost and something you have to take quite seriously. It has all got to be paid for.' Mr Darsey has also been affected. 'Legislation is on us like never before. Disposal costs have gone through the roof. It means jobs are now not going to go ahead. Look at asbestos. It has gone from £300 to £900 in the past two years to dispose of an asbestos bin. With environmental legislation increasing it is becoming increasingly uneconomical to take asbestos and other waste. We are now travelling to Swindon and Bedfordshire for dumping, whereas we used to be able to do it in Kent.' Yet even with these issues there seems to be very little likely to demolish confidence in the growing demolition sector, according to Mr Hall.

'We haven't seen anything like this for the past few years. Margins are tight but hopefully we should see them improving. We seem to be in an upturn, ' he says.