The end of 2004 brought claims that there will be little growth among piling contractors over the next five years, with research body Market & Business Development predicting that the value of the UK foundations market will only increase at or below inflation between now and 2009.
Much of this can be put down to the ending of some of the larger, south east based projects, such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link and Heathrow Terminal 5. There is little on the horizon to replace them, with the next round of 'mega' projects - Crossrail and the London 2012 Olympic facilities - unconfirmed, and not expected to start before 2008.
So there could be some lean years ahead for those of the larger piling specialists which depend on major civil engineering and building projects around London. Understandably, many are eyeing the regional centres such as Cardiff, Leeds and Manchester with relish.
Bachy Soletanche business development manager Chris Thomas told NCE that he feels the major opportunities lie outside London. 'We're having lots of discussions with developers, but not many of the projects are moving forward.' The company has recently opened offices in Glasgow and Birmingham to take advantage of growth outside the capital.
Mowlem Piling & Foundations has developed a reputation for work that is technically demanding or requires more expertise than standard large scale piling, making the firm slightly less vulnerable to the slowdown in major projects.
Expertise in areas such as large diameter piling and offshore work put the firm in a slightly different market to some of the other players, but managing director Chris MacDonald acknowledges the sector is still extremely competitive.
'If you look at the performance of bigger piling companies, there's fewer and fewer in the high end of business - and I think that trend will continue, ' he says.
But he adds that the major piling companies must become more versatile if they are to remain successful. 'With the emphasis on health and safety, you're going to see a lot of bridge and railway projects using smaller types of piling because of the danger of big machines next to lines.' However, one plus point for firms like Mowlem, MacDonald believes, is that clients are becoming more sensitive to how they procure contractors, and are increasingly looking for a 'one stop shop': a main contractor with the expertise to handle key elements of the construction in house - including the piling.
'A lot of companies have realised that using a main contractor that is only a procurer, rather than a prime supplier to the client, is leaving them very vulnerable, ' he explains. 'Now clients are investigating more closely the capabilities of the firms they're going to employ.' He cites the emphasis clients put on a contractor's Capability Assessment Toolkit (CAT) score as an indication that they want evidence that a contractor has those capabilities itself, rather than procuring all the services from subcontractors.
Managing director of Piling Solutions Ceri Hobbs believes the big contractors will have their own in house problems if they take on more of their own piling work. Risk is in the ground, and the best way to offset risk as a contractor is not to give your own company too much piling. 'This applies particularly if contractors are operating as developers on turnkey projects.
Effectively they are the client and they won't want to carry all the risk by doing all the work themselves, ' he said.
Lowest price wins the contracts in piling, Hobbs says.
'Unfortunately that is all that counts.' Hobbs says the industry is being hit by the General Election effect. 'We are effectively a pricing bureau at the moment, ' he says. 'More and more commercial projects are being put on hold until the result of an election are known.'