In this age of continuing recession, everybody in the work-starved demolition industry is looking for the early signs of “the next big thing”: a concentration of work coming from a particular industry, public body or other large organisation with property spread nationwide.

Over the years, successive Governments have created many such opportunities for the demolition industry, starting with the clearance of bomb-damaged structures during WW2, which saw the emergence of the first big demolition companies. Through the following decades there have been Government interventions and directives which have led to short-term abundance of work in certain fields such as the slum clearances of the 60s and 70s; Dr Beeching’s mass removal of much of the rail infrastructure in the late 60’s; removal of many high-rise housing blocks from the late 1970s; large-scale closure of most of the nation’s coal mines in the 80s; removal of wooden football ground stands, following the Bradford AFC fire in 1985. Governments of both colours oversaw a massive renewal of many of the nation’s schools buildings and hospitals via the controversial PFI scheme, which is now coming to an end.

Some examples of wholesale demolition have been influenced by global economics outside the control of the Government, such as the demise of our textile and manufacturing industries, leading to the demolition of much of the old, and in some cases redundant Victorian property housing them. UK steelworks have been similarly affected, as have the motor and ship building industries.

We all hoped that when the Government allowed councils to impose rates on empty buildings, we would see a surge in demolition enquiries, leading to a plentiful supply of work and a possibility of making a reasonable profit margin on projects. It didn’t really happen.

So what can we expect in the next year or so? We will see the continued and somewhat alarming reduction in the number of local pubs, as landlords lose the battle with supermarkets. The current Government has not yet done anything significant to benefit the demolition industry and is unlikely to kick-start the general construction industry by renewing large-scale public building work except in preparation for the next general election in 2015. It has made a gesture, focusing on renewal of road and rail infrastructure, though whether these projects will be fairly throughout the UK remains to be seen. The demise of traditional town centres as a consequence of competition from out-of-town shopping centres and the internet is being addressed by introducing grants to aid the creation of affordable residential accommodation in empty shops, particularly at upper floor levels; some total demolition of redundant properties may occur in certain towns and cities. Under pressure from the Government to cut costs into the bone, many councils may close down buildings they own, including libraries, town halls, old people’s homes and Surestart centres and, in a stagnant property market, they may choose to demolish, rather than mothball. The councils will then sit on the land until prices improve or until they are forced to sell it, to help balance their books.

In the longer term, say 5 to 10 years, coal-fired and nuclear power stations could be kept in operation well beyond than their intended life-times, until alternative energy sources can be developed via private investment, so it is unlikely we will see much movement in that field of expertise until the Government is forced to invest, before it is too late. Oilfields may have redundant rigs removed for scrapping, or more likely for refitting to work in the extraction of off-shore shale gas. The NHS property portfolio may well be down-sized as it is prepared for privatisation of a significant proportion of its services, which could see hospitals and clinics disposed of, to create centralised service hubs that are in many cases privately owned and run by service facilities companies. Fire and ambulance services could face a similar fate and be amalgamated into centralised locations – hubs serving ever larger areas with fewer resources. More military and naval

bases are almost certain to close and be sold off. Directives and laws from the European Parliament may eventually lead to new opportunities for the demolition industry, as they impose ever more stringent “environmental” rules and regulations on our industries, squeezing some into extinction and driving others abroad, to operate from virtually unregulated countries like China and India.

As we come out of recession, it will be interesting to see whether it is the market forces of the private sector or the bureaucracy of the public sector that drive the demolition industry towards its next “big thing”, perhaps a combination of the two, but whatever it is, the astute ones amongst us will be looking for early indications and gearing up to take advantage. I think that we can look towards the public sector to provide opportunities such as down-grading of hospitals and centralising of specialist services and A&E departments across the country will lead to increased work in this area, as will the centralisation of fire and ambulance services, and the clearance of council-owned properties that would once have been mothballed. The same will apply to military bases, as our armed forces are scaled back.

I expect that the Government will eventually have no choice but to subsidise the energy industry, via taxation, to refurbish, upgrade or replace power stations, including nuclear ones, as they will not reinvest their vast profits without being forced to do so. Road and rail bridges will need renewing in years to come, particularly reinforced concrete ones dating from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the private sector, I think we will see increased competition from China and other countries with cheap labour forces, leading to the down-sizing or even ending of UK manufacturing, as work is transferred abroad to cut costs. Increasing red-tape and demands for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe will lead companies to either close completely, or transfer operations to countries where the same stringent demands don’t apply. All these things, occurring over the next 5-15 years, will be our “next big thing”.

Author: Andrew Hutchinson MIDE

This article is the author’s personal opinion and is not intended to represent the views of either the Institute of Demolition Engineers or its members.