“Construction costs have increased and the market is buoyant,” Reed says. “Contractors are able to be fairly choosy about which contracts they go for.” The recent boom has come as a welcome relief for the industry after a sustained downturn. And this has been particularly evident in the Paris office sector, which has benefited from significant investment from within France, but also from British institutions, US firms and German banks.
So, how can UK contractors get in on the act? Unfortunately, the answer is only with difficulty and a great deal of perseverance. “The problem is that French contractors are so big. It is a very strong, very consolidated market,” says Dauzet. And this is why Bovis has chosen to enter the market in largely project management-type roles.
But Tina Paillet, Bovis’ business development manager for southern and western Europe, suggests that the domination of three main players in contracting – Vinci, Bouygues and Effiages – could start to fade. “There has almost been too much consolidation,” she says. “Clients are looking for new solutions.”
But if UK firms do manage to break into the French construction market, they will have to get used to the French way of conducting business. “Typically in France, the general contractor is king and the architect is prince,” says Paillet. As a result of this, most architectural practices in France tend to be small, leaving more room for UK firms to enter the market. Building Design Partnership has begun to find a foothold, and Aukett Europe has a large number of projects, including a 38,000 m2 office development outside Paris.
Aukett’s Reed says he finds the French system very favourable. “I find French contractors are better organised than British,” he says. “Instead of the architect and the engineer telling the builder how to work, the builder adds to the project – there is more constructive dialogue.”
But the French construction industry has just started to feel the effects of the downturn in the US economy. Some projects, particularly for US and UK clients, have already been cancelled, delayed or reduced in scale.
PFI is not, however, currently on the agenda in France. A system that resembled the PFI was introduced a few years ago, but the Marche d’Entreprise de Travaux Publiques form of contract has since been outlawed after a scandal in which favoured private construction companies showed their gratitude by financing political parties. But Paillet hasn’t lost faith in the PFI. “I definitely feel that PFI is on the up. It is becoming a real buzzword.” And as Dauzet adds: “We’re all tired of paying taxes so the government needs to find another way of doing things.”