Belfast Telegraph

Building trade 'completely dead' in Northern Ireland, says construction firm boss

Heron Bros says focus on work in Great Britain will go on as the market is still stagnant back home

By Margaret Canning

A Northern Ireland construction firm boss has declared the trade "completely dead" in the home market and vowed that the hunt for work in Great Britain would go on.

Damien O'Callaghan, the executive manager of Heron Bros in Co Londonderry, said his firm had been required to diversify due to a lack of work in Northern Ireland, leading it to start up a base in Glasgow three years ago.

He said the move has paid off for the Draperstown firm, with projects worth £80m now on its order book as it marks its 60th anniversary this year.

Now, the company has said it is targeting the so-called Northern Powerhouse project for work, as the Conservative Government moves to improve the economy of the north of England by investing in infrastructure.

But he said that there was simply "no work" at home. "We've had just one recent job at home at Foyle College and Ebrington Primary School Nursery, and that's it," Mr O'Callaghan said.

The company has 260 employees and had turnover of £52m in its last results. It is also working on the new National Indoor Arena in Blanchardstown, Dublin in a €55m joint venture with stadium development specialists Buckingham Group Contracting.

Heron Bros also uses more than 500 subcontractors on sites around the UK and Ireland.

Mr O'Callaghan said: "Having our employees travelling across the water every week isn't great and we really would like more work in Northern Ireland.

“But we have to go where the work is.”

And he said the new Executive should prioritise infrastructure. 

“They need to look at budgets and alternative funding such as private finance initiatives (PFIs). 

“There are different routes to market — you can look at revenue budgets, instead of capital budgets, and alternative models of procurement.”

Heron Bros Group managing director Damian Heron said: “We are delighted with our company’s ongoing growth. We are committed to being a partner of choice by building robust, long-lasting relationships with our stakeholders.”

The company was founded by six brothers in Draperstown in 1956. It’s diversified from construction and now includes interests in land and property development, specialist joinery, building supplies, farming and wind energy. Industry body the Construction Employers Federation (CEF) has said the sector was experiencing “modest growth”.

But CEF managing director John Armstrong said growth was coming from elsewhere, rather than projects at home.

“While industry output stood at £618m during quarter four of 2015 — a year on year rise of 3% — this actually represented a fall from £643m during quarter one of the year and falls significantly short of the all-time high of £904m in quarter one of 2007,” he said.

“These figures, accompanied by an employment outlook for many that remains relatively flat, very much reflect an industry that is experiencing modest growth —  but with the bulk of this coming through our highly competitive and innovative companies winning work outside of Northern Ireland.”

He said that the expansion of contractors into external markets was to be welcomed — but added: “It comes at an increasing cost to those employed in the industry who now spend much of their working week away from these shores.”

One sector of building which has shown improvement is housebuilding.

According to the National House Building Council (NHBC), work commenced on 3,223 new homes in Northern Ireland in 2015 — at 30% more than 2014, the highest percentage increase of any UK region.

But in the first quarter of 2016, there was a fall in new home starts in Northern Ireland, to 651.

Belfast Telegraph