Managing cash flow has always been a skill critical to the contractor

But even Scrooge would struggle to get it right these days. Falling workloads, pressure on lending and clients increasingly looking for any excuse to delay final payment are crippling cash flow. The failure of banks to lend is at the heart of our malaise. Pettifer, a long-established firm in the Midlands, fell victim to tight-fisted banks only last week. On top of this, credit insurance and bonding are also harder to come by, squeezing working capital and rattling nerves as it becomes ever more difficult for suppliers to insure against their clients going under.

Many contractors lived through these times in the early 1990s. But what makes matters even more precarious this time round is the sorry predicament of the banks themselves. Contractors and small and medium-sized contractors all around the country are being sunk by the withdrawal of overdraft facilities and the rocketing cost of lending. The ”boring” firms that have stuck to the knitting and not been on a spending spree will rightly be feeling vindicated. But if you’re a contractor that has dabbled in property development, or with no ready cash, then the relationship with your bank has never been more crucial. Of course, there’s more chance of sympathetic treatment for firms that can flag up trouble spots and show that they are at least trying to address the problems. And any firm that has failed to cut overheads, revisit their working methods, or investigate alternative markets shouldn’t expect to get an automatic handout. Banks aren’t charities after all. But what about the well-managed specialists and contractors with decent order books? Why should they be left to go to the wall to pay for the folly of the banks and their sub-prime fiasco? For all the government’s talk of putting pressure on the banks, measures to improve lending to firms just aren’t working.

This week’s six-point charter from Lloyds TSB and its merger partner HBOS includes a pledge to pass on future rate cuts to firms with a turnover of less than £1m. It is a welcome glimmer of hope but other banks need to follow suit and extend the charter’s promises to larger firms. As well as leaning on the banks to make credit available, the government must rigorously stick to its pledge of paying firms within 10 days. But it could also help the industry in more innovative ways. What about providing credit insurance or relaxing bonding requirements on public projects, or as MP Claire Curtis-Thomas has urged, set up project bank accounts? If we are to avoid the 500,000 job losses of the last recession, there is no time to lose.

Denise Chevin, editor

Why should well-managed contractors be left to go to the wall to pay for the folly of the banks and their sub-prime fiasco?

Danger! Green guide

Who would have thought a humble guide to materials specification would need a health warning slapped on it? This is what has happened to the latest version of BRE’s Green Guide, the selection tool that ranks products from A+ to E according to the environmental impact of their manufacture. The first shock was the guide giving uPVC windows an A rating despite many green specifiers believing this is the devil’s own material. Now BRE has been forced to issue a statement warning that the guide is being “misunderstood” after discovering that some clients, including Milton Keynes council, are insisting that the bulk of materials specified on a project must be A rated or better. This simplistic approach could lead to a generation of gas-guzzling buildings as designers disregard the whole-life impact of materials in favour of upfront considerations. BRE is worried that this contagion could spread and become a new Merton Rule. Given that councils love these simplistic green rules, a health warning is entirely justified.