With the search for a more secure energy supply pointing to a nuclear revival, the building industry must be ready to exploit opportunities when they come
It became clear to me some time ago that the energy debate was not only gathering a head of steam but to use a suitable mixed metaphor, it was moving from the back burner to the front of the political agenda.
We all recently viewed the somewhat scary figure of President Putin as he allegedly turned off the gas supply taps to his recalcitrant neighbours. And Sven, the beleaguered England team coach, is not the only one to have suffered at the hands of the sheiks in recent months. We have all witnessed transport costs sky-rocket as fuel costs have risen. The debate is now about how to provide and control our own power, and nuclear increasingly seems to be the option of choice.
If the problem were a short-term one, I would happily plant trees and cycle to work. Indeed, we have ensured that Gleeds has a substantive involvement in the renewable and sustainable energy programme. But I'm a pragmatist by nature and energy provision by nuclear means seems the most likely direction in which UK plc is heading.
Last year, we set up our energy business as a separate operating unit to capitalise on the expert knowledge we had in the practice. Predictions for investment in this sector say it could be as much as £20bn or as little as £10bn. However my energy-specialist colleagues tell me that what is not in doubt is that our current crop of working power stations come under the Antiques Roadshow section of power provision. At least 10 need to be replaced over the next 20 years. This could mean a huge construction bonus to follow on from the 2012 Olympics.
But the core issue, if you will excuse the pun, is one of timing. Sizewell B is the UK's newest nuclear power station, yet it is now 11 years since it first fed the grid and, more importantly, only 30 years away from closure. You think 30 years is a long way off? Don't you believe it. These stations are huge: the dome of the reactor building is big enough to cover St Paul's Cathedral. I remember well the planning inquiry delays, protest meetings, and construction prevarications that thwarted nine Sizewell B clones from being built around the country and leave us now with the threat of reduced diversity of supply and lack of capacity.
David King, the government's chief scientist, has indicated that the nuclear option should be considered. He says that the case for replacing the old generation of stations is compelling and he argues that we need to allow time for the maturity of the renewable markets of solar, tidal, wave and wind to develop fully. The new generation of reactors are much more technologically advanced than their predecessors, use smaller quantities of uranium and produce much less noxious waste.
We could see what should be the biggest energy expansion in UK history being outsourced to foreign competitor businesses
Decisions are necessary now. The critical issue is that even if we started digging foundations next month we would not see our first kilowatt of power from the new power plant until 2012 and that's assuming we can minimise delays caused by public inquiries. By that time, of course, the whole issue is someone else's problem and the current crop of decision makers will be retired to their sun-drenched villas in Tuscany or Barbados where cold British winters do not seem such a worry.
With the industry already ruminating on the challenges thrown up by the onset of the building programme for the 2012 Olympics, we could see what should be the biggest energy expansion in UK history being outsourced to foreign competitor businesses. Many of these already have proven experience and have not been hampered by the "will we-won't we" lobby that will delay our own expansion programme.
Someone once said that procrastination is the thief of time. I say that the clock is ticking at an alarming rate and, as a matter of urgency, we as an industry need to develop a strategy to meet the needs of an ambitious building programme.
With the current state of international affairs the issue is no longer "if" but "when".
Richard Steer is the senior partner at Gleeds