Given the predicament of the UK market, it's no surprise to learn that fidgety construction bosses are turning their gaze overseas
And it's equally unsurprising that the main focus of their attention is their old stamping ground of the Middle East. Apart from subcontracts to rebuild Iraq, there's an abundance of work in places such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Ray O'Rourke and Rob Smith are two bosses who've been staking out the region. But will they venture further? Well, anyone would hesitate in the current climate. Iraq is alarmingly unstable, and suicide bombers have struck everywhere from Chechnya to Casablanca: proof, if it were needed, that the al-Qaeda bacillus is still malignantly opposed to the values that underpin a globalised, free-market economy. In short, this may not be the ideal time to set up shop in Saudi.
Some old Middle East sweats argue that today's bosses are pusillanimous. Where, they ask, is the buccaneering spirit of the 1970s that took, say, Laing into Iran? Sure, the firms got burned in the end, but in the meantime those deals provided a decade's relief from three-day-week Britain. One view of current events is that, even if the terrorists do their worst, an all-conquering America will impose a road map to peace on the whole region. And the happy outcome will include a building bonanza funded by the Arab money that left the States after 9/11.
So, do you chase gold in the Gulf – or stay at home and take your chances with the PFI? It's a dilemma that calls for cool heads; every state south of Sicily is not a death-trap for foreigners. You can only confront specific threats, and none, so far, has been made in Doha or Dubai. Caution and precaution must come first, though. Those staff who step on the plane will need training in streetwise behaviour, enhanced pay and security, and an open ticket home. Yes, costs will rise – not least those for insurance – at a time when margins are a fraction of what they were 30 years ago. And yes, it will sound a little wet to old hands. But isn't such an approach really just part of the safety-first culture that ought to be second nature to the modern industry?
The death penaltyDirectors will be jittery about the new offence of “corporate killing”. Since it has proved impossible to make a corporate manslaughter charge stick – as the recent case of contractor Brian Dean proved – ministers want a way to hold bosses to account for negligence that results in death and injury. But will the new law work – and is it fair? In construction, should the fall guy be the contractor that ran the site, the specialist that supervised the victim or the labour agency that employed them? And who, exactly, should go to jail? If you accept that system failures are behind most accidents, it’s fair to prosecute firms but not individuals – particularly when you’re looking at a large firm. Unless, of course, they appoint a convenient scapegoat – sorry, health and safety director. Incarceration may ease the family’s pain, and encourage les autres. But it doesn’t sound like justice, and it won’t make construction any safer. It’ll just push up insurance costs.