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Heathrow open to Chinese tie-ups as construction chief confirms works timeline

The director in charge of Heathrow Airport’s £16bn expansion has said he would be open to discussions with Chinese firms over the massive pipeline of potential work.

Heathrow director of planning and programmes Phil Wilbraham told Construction News that although the airport had not yet actively sought to collaborate with investors or contractors from the Far East, he would welcome their involvement.

He said: “There is nothing to stop the Chinese market from coming to us and talking to us, and we would welcome those discussions.”

Mr Wilbraham added that the airport has already had interest in its third runway plans from a number of non-UK contractors.

“The likes of Hochtief, Vinci, Ferrovial and Bouygues are all showing interest,” he said.

“This is great because we know some of them already and they tend to work slightly differently to British contractors; they tend to have a deeper in-house supply chain, which is useful in some areas.”

A final decision on where London’s next runway will be built is expected by Christmas.

Earlier this month, Heathrow signalled it was readying itself when it opened the tendering process for prep work on the third runway.

Mr Wilbraham said his team would be working to an accelerated timetable if it is selected over Gatwick.

“We can get tenders back ahead of Christmas, we will then start to meet up with potential winners in the New Year for interviews and behavioural assessments and hope to make a decision in late January [or] early February, all dependant on a government decision of course.”

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Heathrow’s construction chief also revealed to Construction News the timeframe for construction of the third runway.

Mr Wilbraham said that once a decision was made by the government, Heathrow would apply for a development consent order that could be approved as early as mid-2019.

Heathrow would then begin tendering for design partners toward the end of 2016, with appointments made in 2017.

This would be followed by a wave of construction packages going out to tender in 2017, with the airport hoping to have picked most of its main contractors by 2018.

Mr Wilbraham said the four contractors currently on Heathrow’s Q6 framework would be “in the mix” when it came to third runway contracts.

“We are completely committed to having long-term strategic relationships with our contractors on Q6,” he said.

Balfour Beatty, Ferrovial, Mace and Morgan Sindall were the quartet of firms appointed last year to carry out £1.5bn of upgrade work over five years.

“Whether it comes to working with them in the future, it all depends on how Q6 work is going now,” Mr Wilbraham added.

“We are working well with all these companies at the moment and I would say that they are absolutely in the mix for future works here.”

However, he added that the scale of work, if Heathrow were to be given the nod for a third runway, would mean it would have to expand its nine-strong tier one supplier list for Q6, which includes consultants as well as main contractors.

“The problem is we have only got nine suppliers that are on the first tier list at the moment and we are never going to deliver £16bn-worth of work with that sort of supply chain,” he said.

“The volume is going to be massive and will require big civil engineering jobs too, so we will need those companies we know well and a lot of others that we don’t necessarily know that well.”

Mr Wilbraham also said Heathrow would work on developing offsite manufacturing throughout the project to help with capacity and safety issues, and to limit the chance of over-runs.

“What we want to do is drive as much work offsite as possible,” he said.

“It is much safer building in a factory than on a building site, and also you tend to get things done right first time on a factory, whereas on a building site you don’t.”

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