UK construction had a boom year in 1999, with the top 100 companies turning over more than £43bn. Total pre-tax profit was almost £2.2bn and the average margin was 4.9%.

The top 50 companies – which account for 85% of turnover and pre-tax profit in the top 100 – enjoyed a combined profit hike of 14% to £1.9bn, their best performance since the late 1980s. On the other hand, profit was still 40% lower than in 1988 in real terms (taking inflation into account), a good indication of how far the market is from the kind of disastrous boom we had then. Margins for the top 50, although improving to 5.1% (compared with 4.6% in 1998), are still well down on 1989's dizzying 9%.

But, although profit soared, turnover for the top 50 nudged up only 6% to £37.2bn, mainly because major contractors are downsizing and bidding for less work. Many housebuilders, too, have shunned volume to chase margins.

The hunt for higher margins has led many of the top contractors into facilities management. This, along with strenuous efforts to avoid loss-making projects, helped lift pre-tax margins for contractors in the top 50 from 1.3% to 1.7%.

The top housebuilders lifted pre-tax margins, too – from 11.6% to 12% – helped by rampant house price inflation in the South-east.

The largest UK construction company last year was once again Amec, even though its turnover fell £200m to £3.19bn. Wimpey was once again the biggest housebuilder, raising its turnover from £1.4bn to £1.52bn.