Big public sector job saves the firm from dropping out of the top 10 table altogether

A £203m contract to install 50,000 signs for Cambridgeshire council saved Balfour Beatty from dropping out of the top 10 table altogether in April, allowing the contractor to stay on top for the second month running.

Amid a battle among economists over whether the ONS had correctly recorded a 4% fall in construction output in the first quarter of 2011, contractors won far fewer - however more valuable - contracts and were still grimly dependent on the public sector.

In addition to Balfour’s huge Cambridge win, Wates moved up from fourth to third, assisted by a £18.6m school win for Stoke-on-Trent council, while Bowmer & Kirkland also won £41.5m in schools work, pushing them into the non-civils table.

The number of projects in April (178) was dramatically lower than for March (246), but the total value of work won by the top 10 contractors actually edged up by 6%.

But this could prove a flimsy recovery, as just 12.2% of the £1.06bn work won came from the commercial sector, compared with 37.3% from the public sector and 35.6% from civils work - which, as with Balfour Beatty, is likely to predominately come from government spending.

The dependence on the state will add to fears that the private sector is not growing to fill the space left by cuts in the public sector. The Construction Products Association’s Construction Trade Survey, released on Monday, found that contractors’ order book confidence was about -70% for non-housing public work. This is the percentage that reported rising orders minus those that reported falling orders between the last quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011.

The amount of work that has been won in the past year has also significantly slipped over the past two months. At the end of February, the total for the top 10 stood at £14.3bn, but in March this had fallen to £13.7bn and for April the total is now £12.4bn.