So Ray O'Rourke's fusiliers are going to make £55,000 a year while they put up Terminal 5, are they? Maybe, but they'll have to win some battles first …
Historically, Heathrow Airport is a place apart: a place with different rules and different wage rates. Despite the protestations of Sir John Egan and his committee for the improvement of the construction industry, Heathrow has not been a happy place for contractors. It is ironic that Egan, the former head of BAA and the man who spent so much time planning the improvement of construction, should allow his company to employ a contractor whose attitude to pay settlements is unlikely to improve anyone's industry, let alone one that is facing a fairly sharp recession. I refer, of course, to the recent pay settlement between Laing O'Rourke and the trade unions, according to which the contractor will pay its skilled workers up to £55,000 a year, and its unskilled workers up to £32,000.

It would be easy to discuss the Laing O'Rourke settlement at the airport as of no consequence to the rest of the construction industry: a settlement in which fools rush in and prudent contractors hang back. Ray O'Rourke, however, is no fool – he is long on courage while short on experience as a general contractor, perhaps, but certainly no fool.

It could be argued that the Laing side of the match brought, as a dowry, the best part of a century in general contracting. To make such an argument, however, would be the task of heavyweight optimism. Before its marriage to O'Rourke, Laing came to grief by taking trophy work at the wrong prices. The cleverer partner was Mr O'Rourke, who was paid good money to take them away.

The figures published for the pay levels that Laing O'Rourke proposes to pay on the Terminal 5 project at Heathrow should not be taken at face value, for they are headline figures and the actual pay levels could turn out to be very different.

In O’Rourke’s bold approach to contracting, it is easy to see similarities with my great grandfather

Mr O'Rourke comes from a hard school and knows well when to say "no". This contract will be a fascinating one to watch, as it will inevitably become a battle of wits. Egan, if he is watching, will learn more about the construction industry during the building of this terminal than he learned in the hours of preparing his report.

The trade unions will need to be on their toes, for they are not dealing with a moribund contractor, rather a short man making a quantum leap in his career. In Mr O'Rourke's bold approach to contracting, it is easy to see similarities with my great grandfather, Sir Robert McAlpine: the taking of what seemed appalling risks, the courage, the toughness. Both have their roots in concrete; the important difference between them, however, is the age that they live in. The days of my great grandfather were an age in which courage and energy played a leading role. For Mr O'Rourke, law and surveyors have the upper hand. In the words of McAlpine's Fusiliers, a traditional song rewritten by the Behans to suit a strike-ridden time, the "well filled hod" that was "McAlpine's god" is no longer the norm – indeed, not even an ambition. The battle that will ensue from low prices and extravagant wages will be fought by surveyors and lawyers.