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Balfour Beatty: The '70s

The early 1970s were a game of two halves on many levels for Balfour Beatty.

The transmission teams were rocking round the world in the pioneering spirit of the era, flying men and equipment high up into the Zagros mountains of Iran or erecting the longest high voltage lines in the western hemisphere in the pampas of Argentina.

“That was made possible by radio communication − a far cry from the old days of fl ags and whistles,” says then general manager of the Power Transmission division and later company managing director Don Holland.

Meanwhile UK civil engineering was struggling in a country riven by industrial unrest, three day weeks and power cuts. However, even with that to contend with, work in the north and Scotland was going well. The group had broken into major road construction and was working on Glasgow inner ring road and M73 among other major schemes.

The business was in joint venture with Anglo Dutch Off shore Concrete (ANDOC) at the start of the North Sea oil boom building a concrete oil platform. And a foray into commercial building work introduced the company to airport construction projects, with a new terminal at Dyce Airport, Aberdeen. Kielder Dam and Peterhead power station were also on the books.

Trouble and breakthrough

But in the south there were problems. Three significant contracts were in trouble − the Dartford Tunnel second bore, Great Billing sewage works in Northampton and the M1/South Mimms junction were haemorrhaging money. The boys in the north and Scotland came south to sort it out. Senior directors were sent out to work on site to turn the schemes round so they didn’t irreparably damage the whole business.

To crown a tough first five years for contracting, the excitement of starting work on the greatest project of the age − the Channel Tunnel − as part of the Cross Channel Contractors Group − was dashed when the project was cancelled by the new Labour government in January 1975 just as the tunnel boring machine was about to start up.

But then in 1976 came a big breakthrough − the business won the £350M contract for the 66 berth Mina Jebel Ali port in Dubai. The job involved over 14km of quays, needed 5,500 men and was completed a year ahead of schedule. It was opened by HM The Queen who sailed in to the dock in Britannia in February 1979. Balfour Beatty was set fair for the 1980s.

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