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UK contractors appear to have caught a foreign chill

NCE has to be the bearer of bad news this week, as we have to report how you - the British construction industry - have collectively disappointed a major European client.

Yes, that’s right. Promoter of the £4.4bn Fehmarnbelt tunnel scheme, Femern, is said to be “disappointed” at the lack of interest from the UK in building the 19km link between Denmark and Germany.

Contractors from Germany, Denmark, France, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium were shortlisted last summer to oversee construction work on the massive road and rail scheme. Just three British fi rms made the shortlist - and all consultants. Not one contractor to be seen.

Perhaps it is not all that surprising: British contractors have been badly stung working abroad in the past; and it is not as if they are short of work to bid for in the UK right now. Indeed, NCE has already reported how major contractors are turning down jobs because their bid teams are working fl at out.

But Femern has repeatedly expressed its desire to see UK, among other international, contractors getting involved with the scheme.

And you have to feel that ignoring major projects such as Fehmarnbelt - projects that are to all intents and purposes right on our doorstep - is both short-sighted and naïve.

Because it surely means that while contractors from across Europe are busy boosting their skills, capabilities and CVs when it comes to major project delivery, in the eyes of major clients UK contractors are standing still.

And it doesn’t take much vision to see what could happen if UK contractors are perceived to be losing their edge.

Already last year we saw the contract to build the iconic Mersey Gateway bridge awarded to a Spanish-led consortium ahead of two British-led ones. The reason: consortium leader FCC has an international reputation for building concrete bridges quickly. Soon after that we saw Spain beat Britain to another big one - this time the £625M upgrade of London Underground’s Bank Station. The reason: Dragados was seen as being more innovative.

So there must be legitimate concerns about UK contracting’s ability to beat off our Continental cousins when it comes to the next big deals - with High Speed 2 (HS2) standing out as a particular risk.

After all - when was the last time a UK contractor built a high speed railway line? It may surprise you but it is almost seven years since High Speed 1 opened - and since then high speed railways have been fl ying up across Europe. Take France - next week I’m off to Poitiers for a last look at construction of the Bordeaux-Tours high speed line before it turns from civils project to railway engineering project. I mention that as the line - comparable in length and complexity to HS2 - only began construction in 2011.

I’ll bet that I’ll be hearing about the new skills that have been learned and the new techniques developed by its contractor - France’s Vinci. Pity these skills are not being learned by us Brits.

  • Mark Hansford is NCE’s interim editor

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