At the start of the 1960s Balfour Beatty had two main businesses − civil engineering and power − that were pretty much independent of each other.
For the power business the decade got off to a great start with the contract to upgrade a major portion of the national electricity “supergrid” from 275kV to 400kV. The project took most of the decade, and was responsible for the arrival of the massive steel pylons that are now a familiar sight throughout our landscape.
Meanwhile the civils business was learning to operate in a changed market. Nationalisation of infrastructure and utilities gave the company less chance to exercise the entrepreneurial spirit that had characterised the pre-war years, forcing it to compete in new areas.
Power station construction was still a mainstay, and in the 60s Balfour Beatty worked on facilities at Drax, Tilbury, Cockenzie and Dungeness − the fi rst power station in the UK to incorporate an advanced gas-cooled reactor. But power stations alone would not sustain the business, and the company looked further afield, tackling increasingly complex projects, including a section of the London Underground at Elephant & Castle, and the second bore of the Blackwall Tunnel, also in London. Both involved working under compressed air in difficult ground conditions.
South of the border Balfour Beatty’s biggest successes were in specialist construction, but in Scotland the company managed to develop a thriving heavy civils business that landed big road jobs like the M73 − Scotland’s largest motorway contract − and dams including Kielder and Blackwater.
Overseas the firm continued, mainly, to follow UK government and World Bank money to former colonies, building hydro-electric, power transmission, road and dock projects in places like Pakistan, Tanzania, Kenya and Malaysia.
One of the largest projects at the time was the £72M Kainji dam in Nigeria, a project that generated 600 engineering drawings and led to the creation of an independent design consultancy within Balfour Beatty. The dam was opened to a “21-gun salute” of gelignite charges. Balfour Beatty’s biggest rival in the power sector at the time was BICC. Between them they carried out two thirds of the UK supergrid upgrade.
But when that work came to an end both firms started to feel the pinch, and joining forces − in the form of a takeover by BICC − seemed a logical next step. It was a decision that shaped the direction of the business for the next 30 years.