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Are Bristol's builders booming again?

Dave Harvey | 18:22 UK time, Tuesday, 30 March 2010


At Finzels Reach, the cranes are back. Four of them, winching steel rods high over the Bristol skyline, swinging huge panels into place. What was once a Victorian brewery is being reborn as riverside apartments and 110,000 square foot of offices.

"In the last six months we've seen office take-up come back to where it was in the good times," the developer tells me.

Chris Read, from HDG Mansur, has some pretty impressive numbers. "By 2007 Bristol was letting about 650,000 square foot of office space a year. In the first quarter of 2010 we've seen 150,000 go out already. If this keeps up, then this city will need all the office space it can get."

What's unique about this development is they haven't let a square inch yet. When it's finished, it will be six floors of Grade A offices, housing 600 people. But the whole thing is being built on spec. Finzel's Reach is the largest speculative office development outside London right now. The agents are confident that in a year's time, when the offices are ready, the tenants will come.

"If I was looking for an office," muses property agent Peter White, of BNP Paribas Real Estate, "I would worry that rents were going up. And I'd think, why wait? Why not get in now while the prices are good?"

building-web.jpg In this trade, they like big cranes. They're symbolic. And after the hammering the construction industry took through the last two years, four cranes on one site are getting people very excited.

"This announcement signals renewed confidence in Bristol's office market," the press release crowed. "We expect there to be strong demand from businesses as we emerge from recession."

Is all this confidence justified?

"I'm still fairly negative about construction, to be honest." Lawyer Stephen Clarke, of Clarke Willmott, can see the Finzel cranes from his riverside office window. He sees both sides of deals in this trade, so is well placed to judge a "recovery".

"It's still very patchy," he continues. "My big worry is the level of tendering. People are putting in very low tenders, because it's so competitive out there. I've even seen bids at 10% below the profit line."

So how do they make their money at that price, I wonder?

"Exactly, that's the problem. They'll have to pile on extras, claims and disputes. In the next few years, you'll see a huge rise in disputes. So we're advising clients not to be lured by low tenders."

It happened in the '90s. As construction came out of the crash, builders came out of hibernation. Every contract was a magnet, attracting ludicrous bids from all-comers. It was followed by a decade of litigation, as the extras that earned the profit were contested.

But beyond that, some fear that the property business has learnt nothing from the past three years. "Who's going to rent all that space?" asks Mark Dampier of Hargreaves Lansdown. Mr Dampier was the Cassandra of construction, challenging the market when everyone else was piling into it through the Noughties. He was proved right then, and he can't see a recovery now.

"I know I'm gloomy on the recovery, but I think the next three to four years look pretty bumpy," he explains. "For a start, the banks have got over £100 bn pounds of property on their books, which they don't want. So there's a ready seller."

Mr Dampier points out that property is only earning investors 3% at the moment, compared to 5% plus on the stock market. And if investors cool their interest, the property market can only bounce back on real demand, not speculation.

Back at Finzels Reach, they're confident in their calculations. The scheme was fully backed by bankers before the crash, and there are really only two other schemes of similar size in the city coming on stream in 2011. But while their cranes are back, we may have to wait a while for the building boom that some are claiming today.


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