Or was it that you were referring to just the south-east of England? You really have to exclude at least central Scotland from your optimistic account.
I am an estimator with a Scottish building firm. Until a few months ago, I was the estimating manager for the Scottish division of one of the UK's top building and civil engineering companies, which in April this year shut up shop in Scotland for the second time in 10 years.
This shutdown followed more than 10 years of ludicrous trading conditions for any building company trying to win most of its turnover from competitively procured contracts. The Scottish construction market for contractors obliged to survive on such work is in meltdown, and has been for some years. Unless, of course, you're building the odd major government project, and you've managed to, shall we say, slide around prescribed procurement routes.
In the past 10 years or so, we've seen major national building companies bounce into and out of Scotland like yo-yos, and we've seen some of the industry's oldest names disappear for good. One of the UK's largest contractors left Scotland some four or five years ago. It had traded for 22 years in the central belt, and had failed to make a profit during any one of those years. Oddly though, this contractor is now back. One has to infer that they've made the crazy assumption that things have changed here.
We all know that most, if not all, of these disappeared companies have been among the guiltiest parties when it comes to "net price tendering" and have paid the ultimate price – some leaving huge amounts of unsecured debts which will no doubt scupper some of our hard-pressed subbies over the next year or so.
Some other contractors are still prepared to take work at well below net cost – in some cases because they're desperate, in others because their shareholders are delighted with the 1% return they can winkle out of even harder-pressed design teams. In some other cases, it's because they're just plain daft. Some of these guys just don't have any idea what they're doing. What they are doing, and this point isn't up for debate, is preventing good companies from procuring work at anywhere near sustainable margins.
There remain huge unanswered questions about "overtrading" in this industry. It is widespread and seems to elude discovery by auditors who should by now be carrying out something analogous to due diligence on the annual accounts of some building companies. One of the problems we have here is that even well-qualified professionals struggle to get to grips with the concept of overtrading. And QSs in Scotland have been basing their budget costs on the tenders submitted by these failing companies for years and years, thus ensuring that the cycle continues.
I'll leave you with a quote from a guy called Albert. He was a Geordie site agent with Turriff in the early 1980s and was sent up to sort out an ailing old folk's home project for which I was the project QS. "Hoots mon, och aye, knicky knacky," he used to say. You were taking the mickey, Albert, I know. But if you ever read this, I have to tell you that it has taken me almost 30 years to find out that this is precisely how much sense it all makes.
A call is made to Simon, the contracts manager, who sets up a meeting with the tile supplier and layer. The supplier is from Wales and tiles are from the Merlin range. The Dilbert rule for these meetings is that you must have more people than the other side and carry a big pen. Nolan and I enlist Amanda, our secretary and meet the tile rep and Simon in the office block. Outfoxed! They have each brought an assistant – although they have forgotten the big pen. Like a scene from a surreal remake of High Noon, we face each other across a sea of blue curly sandwiches. I say the colour is patchy, and the rep counters that it is a trick of the light. We spend the next 15 minutes playing musical carpet tiles before I concede the point. However, it seems that moving the tiles around has revealed a weakness in the enemy’s position, and I throw in my reserves (Nolan). He coolly walks around the room and identifies carefully preselected tiles of different thicknesses … Not only are the tiles from a faulty batch, but they have been laid with a wand, which is like a garden sprayer full of glue. If the wand is incorrectly used it produces a variable adhesive layer. There are two morals to this story: first, M&E engineers are good people to ask about carpet tiles, and second, don’t use products named after wizards and laid by wands unless standing in a pentagram. There is a happy ending: both floors were relaid. All is well until Nolan tells me the boxes are in the wrong place and the plant room hatch is too small for our 28-stone electrician, but that’s another story.
Greg Trickey is property manager for Devon Fire and Rescue Service.