Construction industry leaders have rounded on a House of Lords committee that found there was little evidence that immigration had benefited the UK

Speaking at Building’s inaugural Business Leaders Forum in London, Murray Coleman, chief executive of Bovis Lend Lease, said he greeted the findings of the House of Lords’ economic affairs committee with “disbelief”.

He said: “To conclude that immigration has a neutral effect on UK industry – which includes construction – is something I struggle to understand. The real risk is that we will discourage the unskilled people that we need to enter the UK industry.”

The government maintains that immigration contributes an estimated £6bn each year to the UK economy.

Elsewhere in his speech, Coleman predicted that the recent flurry of mergers and acquisitions would “continue over the next 24 months, particularly if the credit crunch continues”.

Pascal Minault, chair of Bouygues UK, agreed and said the UK contracting market would follow the French trend and consolidate into handful of huge players. France is dominated by three large companies – Vinci, Bouygues and Eiffage – which turn over £17.8bn, £13.1bn and £8.7bn respectively.

Minault said: “Below the big three you have companies with turnovers of about *1bn (£788m) but there’s no room for national mid-sized contractors. In the regions you have local champions that survive because owners don’t want to sell up.”

Also at the forum, former MP Michael Portillo sounded a warning note about the progress of high-profile public projects during the current downturn.

He said it was inevitable that major infrastructure projects, including Crossrail, would be delayed because the government current borrowing of £40bn could not be extended.

Francis Ives, chairman of Cyril Sweett, which has made three acquisitions in the past two weeks, was cautious about the involvement of private equity cash in the industry.

He said the company had considered raising money through private equity as an alternative to flotation on the stock exchange last year. “Private equity is like a big black bear. As long as you feed it, it’s okay. If not, it will eat you.”