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All aboard the national plan

The construction industry in Ireland has never had it so good. But meeting the targets is stretching resources, and pushing up prices

In construction terms Ireland is almost on a war footing. The surge in construction work has made the industry one of the country's leading employers. Government estimates put the number employed in all aspects of construction at around 238,000, or around one seventh of the workforce. Output last year of IRú14bn ($16.8bn) contributed around 20% of gross national product, while investment per head of IRú3,000 is one and a half times the EU average.

But the speed and size of the workload are causing concern. The Irish construction industry has almost doubled in size in three years, and grown fivefold in just over 10. The huge demands placed by the National Development Plan and opportunities presented by the booming private sector mean that the industry is already showing signs of overheating. Symptoms such as a labour and skills shortage and rising tender prices show that all is not well.

'There is no way of objectively measuring construction capacity, but we have seen a decline in the number of people tendering for contracts, dropping from double to single digit. And there has been a 25% rise in tender prices over the past two years, varying above and below across different sectors, ' says the Department of the Environment's head of construction Michael McCarthy.

'This is not sustainable going forward. The government cannot wear a continuation of tender escalation on this scale and a 25% decrease in the purchasing power of its pound.'

Despite a background of high general inflation of over 6% for much of last year, environment minister Noel Dempsey has warned that some scheduled work may have to be shelved if prices continue to rise.

'There are two ways of dealing with this - one is to increase domestic capacity, the second is to attract foreign firms which will hopefully bring in foreign skills and labour, ' McCarthy adds.

While the NDP has universal support, the timescale of the proposed work has attracted industry criticism. A strong lobby for many years, the construction industry's pleas for the work to be scaled over a longer period has fallen on deaf political ears. Much of this has been driven by an understandable desire on the part of the domestic industry to keep the work within in Ireland.

But the government has already made up its mind that the home industry lacks the fire power to deliver the goods, and wants overseas help. Speaking eight months ago, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said: 'Within two years an awful lot of contracts are going to go to outside companies. The people here do not have the capacity to take them on. We are determined to get on with this and the huge contracts are going to go abroad, ' he said.

Not everyone in the industry agrees with the timescale, and some say it cannot be done.

'The NDP is just about achievable but is certainly very ambitious, especially the roads programme, but everybody is prepared to give it their best shot. But the government will need to be able to move quickly and smooth out bureaucracy, planning procedures and administrative bottlenecks which can arise from objections to schemes, ' says Arup Dublin office director and Association of Consulting Engineers of Ireland honorary secretary Derrick Edge.

Taking a more trenchant view was a member of the Latham/ Egan-type industry task force appointed to present a detailed report on increasing domestic capacity.

'Some difficult decisions will have to be made.

It would not be a national disaster if the NDP was not realised until 2010, ' says Dublin based president of the European Committee for Construction Economics Michael Webb.

'The NDP won't happen with the resources available at the moment. One way is to attract foreign workers and contractors, but overseas contractors need to bring labour with them. Otherwise it just means bringing more contractors into an already tight market, ' he adds.

Already there are signs that the market is sweating. Consultant Carl Bro, which has won significant business on road schemes, has seen signs that some work is being shelved, primarily because local authorities are experiencing extreme staff shortages. Local authorities have a statutory role on many public projects under the NDP, acting as client. 'There is now a concentration on strategic road routes, with other schemes being postponed.

Around a third of the road schemes we have been working on are being put back, ' says Carl Bro director David Taylor.

The final report by the Forum for the Construction Industry task force on expanding the capacity of the Irish construction industry identified manpower and skills shortages, introduction of Egantype innovative construction practices and changes to the regulatory and cumbersome planning laws as the key areas for improvement.

The nine member task force consists of both government and industry representatives, including the Institution of Engineers of Ireland. While underlining the consensus and partnership approach that government favours for business in Ireland, the adoption of the report's recommendation highlights the seriousness with which the government views the implementation of the NDP and the role the construction industry must play.

Such concern has meant the government taking a hands-on approach. Led by the Taoiseach, a special infrastructure cabinet committee of senior ministers meets monthly to review progress on the NDP.

The challenge of managing such a huge volume of work is immense, and recognised by the government as critical. Before the NDP, there was never the need to co-ordinate what were much smaller amounts of work.

A key development will be a new project tracking system for all contracts generally worth more than IRú18M. Due to be introduced by April at the latest, it will allow progress of all NDP projects to be monitored.

But a key plank of government policy now is in attracting outside interest. This has been pursued through a range of initiatives, from PR roadshows to the UK and abroad to attract interest among contractors and consultants, to a drive towards larger contracts which would be more attractive to overseas firms.

'We are not merely advertising in the Official Journal and saying 'here's the work'. We are going out there and want overseas firms to know they are welcome, ' says the DoE's McCarthy. But the firms which are wanted are those which bring labour and specialist skills and machinery, adding value and technology not available at home, and boosting capacity.

The largest chunk of work to go overseas is the IRú353M Dublin Port Tunnel contract, won by a consortium of Mowlem and Nishimatsu and Mowlem-owned local firm Irishenco. Skanska, Jarvis, Balfour Beatty, O'Rourke, Morrison, Bovis Lend Lease, Amec, Galliford and Gleeson are among the firms which have won or sought work in Ireland. But many UK consultants have already established Irish offices or joint ventures with Irish counterparts, with some such as Posford Duvivier capitalising on relationships built up over years and through leaner times.

But while Northern Ireland firms have a long track record of coming across the border, the number of overseas arrivals is low.

'There is not much crossborder contracting competition in the EU, perhaps due to differences in tax, language and regulations, ' McCarthy says. 'Although there is significant trade in building materials, and a high percentage in some firms of overseas trading in former colonies, Eastern Europe and Hong Kong, only 4% of the European construction market is internationally traded so it's not surprising that we've not had many overseas firms winning contracts.'

What is being seen as a key bridgehead for overseas firms are the IRú1.7bn projects to be let under the Public Private Partnership private finance initiative. These are expected to bring in expertise which is not locally available and which will benefit from experience of similar projects such as PFI jobs in the UK. Head of the government's PPP unit Eamonn Kearns says that involvement of overseas firms is essential.

'UK firms will have expertise and experience from PFI projects, and many of the lessons learned can be put to good use here. We have had active interest from many overseas firms, and welcome any that are interested in doing business here, ' he adds.

One firm which has recently built up its portfolio of contracts is Northern Ireland contractor Graham, which recently completed the IRú47M DundalkDunleer bypass with local firm Uniform Construction ahead of schedule. It has been shortlisted as a joint venture with Morrison for PPP school building projects. Graham managing director Michael Graham recommends a careful look at what is available rather than ploughing in randomly to the huge range of work on offer.

'There's massive potential here, but the buoyant market can create its own difficulties with so much work around, ' says Graham. 'The key is to pick the right sort of business, find niche areas and concentrate on winning there. And you need to do so with the support of local firms to get started.'

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