You can’t see much when you’re in a hole, but the truth is that the noughties were in many ways a wonderful decade
Developers revelled in cheap money and easy credit while the government set out to renew much of Britain’s public estate; the result was extraordinary demand for construction services. As workload swelled, consultants scrambled to offer staff everything from reflexology sessions to golden handshakes, and junior QSs could take home £50k. Clients would get down on one knee to beg contractors of all sizes to consider tendering. And the growth in computing power gave architects a new freedom, from the impossibilities of Rem Koolhaas and Zaha to the elegant logic of Norman Foster.
Of course the industry had its share of disasters, too: the collapse of Metronet, Wembley stadium and the Scottish parliament were three of the biggest cock-ups. But alongside that we had the coming of Eurostar to King’s Cross, Manchester law courts and the new Arsenal stadium, all completed on time and to budget.
But for all the changes brought by the noughties, much remains the same. Despite all the government’s labours, the planning system is still dysfunctional, housing supply is inadequate, and as the recent Wolstenholme report made clear, the state is still an imperfect client. In the industry, white middle-aged men still rule, training is more neglected than ever and for all the talk of collaborative working, clients and contractors reverted to type as soon as the boom ended. That said, big clients are sticking with the idea of frameworks, even if they are making firms re-tender for the work.
The growth of frameworks, which tend to favour larger firms, has accelerated mergers and left many mid-sized firms out in the cold. The most dramatic example is, of course, Balfour Beatty, whose order book is over £12bn, even without its acquisition of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Ten years ago it was a fifth of that.
The decade was also one of international expansion as firms with secure UK earnings looked to follow their multinational clients around the world. After their UK revenue became insecure, many got on the plane to seek refuge in foreign markets. Unfortunately, this often meant Dubai, which was a case of out of the frying pan, into the fire. There’s still work to be won in other parts of the Middle East, but firms must realise they need to approach it with their eyes open.
The industry had its share of disasters. But alongside that we had the coming of Eurostar to King’s Cross, Manchester Law Courts and the new Arsenal stadium, all completed on time and to budget
And other changes for the better? Well there’s the growth of green consciousness, obviously, but the industry has also become a nicer place to be: workers are by and large treated far better than before: canteens serve pasta alongside sausages in grease, toilets are cleaned and safety is taken more seriously. And then there’s the rediscovery of architecture and the value of good design. The skill of designers, builders and visionary political leaders has transformed cities like Manchester, Liverpool and London. And about 100 leaky, crumbling hospitals have been replaced with gleaming 21st-century models. The industry can’t claim to have made all the progress it might have in the past decade, but once we gain a little historical perspective, it will go down as a glorious era of construction …
Look to the future now
This is the final issue of Building in 2009. But we’ll be providing you with news and analysis throughout the holiday period on www.building.co.uk (the biggest change for us this decade). Many thanks to all of you who bought the magazine, visited our website and came to our events. On behalf of the team here I’d like to wish everyone a very happy Christmas – and fingers crossed for a better 2010.
Denise Chevin, editor