Sheffield’s cranes are building the new economy

A HTC crane from Sheffield towers over the London skyline
A HTC crane from Sheffield towers over the London skyline
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Millions of M1 drivers pass the cheery Christmas Crane, a festive beacon on the South Yorkshire skyline every December.

Few have any idea how it got there - or that its owners are industry giants without whom many of the most ambitious and well-known commercial building projects would never have got off the ground in this country and beyond.

The illuminations are down to staff at the Sheffield headquarters of HTC Plant, one of the UK’s big four tower crane companies.

As well as the view from the motorway at Junction 34, its cranes dominate skylines from central London to Dubai, Ryadh and Kenya and are vital for the construction of oil rigs out in the North Sea.

“Few people know that from our site on Grange Mill Lane, cranes go the length and breadth of the country and even beyond. They all know about the Christmas Crane, though. We get letters thanking us for going to so much trouble every year,” says company director and general manager David Holder.

“I’ll let you into a secret, though; we don’t go climbing up there every December 1; the lights are there permanently. All we do is connect the power supply...”

David knows all the secrets of the job; he started at 15 back in 1981, two decades before the company was taken over by current owners the Hartington Group. He was an apprentice erector, “a great line to tell the girls,” he grins. His is a serious business, though. Upon skyscraper cranes, the construction industry hinges. Without them, nothing goes up.

Clearly, the industry is on the rise; currently 80 per cent of the company’s 240-strong fleet - which accounts for a quarter of the UK’s crane population - is in use.

Back in 2009, the vast site near Blackburn and Wincobank was crammed with dismantled cranes. HTC had to rent an extra 30 acres of storage space in West Yorkshire as orders dried up.

“We were shedding jobs, cutting wages... The recession hit us really hard and very early. We can pinpoint the day it all started for us; in May 2009 we heard we’d lost the bid for the London Olympic village to our main rivals, Dartford-based Select Plant.

“It was a huge blow; we had turned down a number of jobs so we could reserve the 20 cranes required. So much was riding on it because the recession had already started to slow down construction work. Losing that job was the beginning of our recession.”

Only 26 per cent of its cranes were out on jobs by 2010. And there was a further price to pay; thieves hunting for scrap metal cost them £500,000. “They took electric cable for the copper content, steel pins... Every bit of metal that can be carried, they took.”

The irony is that now the company can afford to spend on CCTV and 24-hour security, there are only 48 cranes in storage. No one is complaining; the workforce is back up to 450 and the firm is recruiting for extra admin staff, a junior CAD technician and apprentices to join the scheme Dave resurrected a couple of years ago, convinced it was vital to train up their own new blood.

Would-be operators obviously need a good head for heights; HTC’s tallest crane is currently working 700 feet above Fenchurch Street in London’s Square Mile.

Cranes cluttering London’s skyline are the best barometer of economic recovery.

So telling a sign of investment are they, even the Bank Of England use them as a reference point.

“Crane companies are the first into and the first out of a recession. Deciders of monetary policy tend to use tower crane deployment as a reference point. They are clear indicators of what investors are doing with their money,” explains M.D. David Holder.

HTC cranes all the way from Sheffield helped build much of London’s recent developments - most of Canary Wharf, key buildings in the Square Mile, including the Cheesegrater building on Leadenhall Street close to Lloyds of London, which cost £268 million and is the tallest office building in the City, plus the renowned ‘Walkie Talkie’ 500-foot, 37-storey skyscraper, the design of which famously melted the roof of a parked car by channelling solar glare down to the road below.

HTC’s red structures were at the demolition and rebuild of Wembley Stadium for five years, too.

And now the HTC initials are becoming a familiar City sight once again. Their biggest cranes, giants capable of lifting 60 tonnes, fives times that of a regular crane, are currently working on the refurbishment of London Bridge Station. Others can be seen clawing the clouds at New Street Square, Angel Court and on the Thames South Bank.

The company that helped to build Meadowhall, Don Valley Stadium and Sheffield’s Velocity towers is also looking forward to finding more work on its doorstep again.

“London and the south are definitely booming but we haven’t seen such positivity in the provinces. We predict, though, that it will reach South Yorkshire by the second quarter of 2015. There are some very interesting jobs coming up in the North around that time; university extensions, office and residential developments in Manchester and oil industry-driven office blocks in Glasgow...”

Most of their work comes from their relationships with Blue Chip construction companies and HTC also spot huge potential in the ever-growing retirement village concept and are pitching for the second phase of a 10,000 new homes development on the Greenwich peninsular by Chinese investors.

“Companies ask why we don’t relocate to London, but we’re happy on the outskirts of Rotherham. This is an excellent site for us. The M1 is on our doorstep and land is so much cheaper here.”

Never mind train-spotters, crane-spotters are a growing breed.

Enthusiasts flock to see the latest giants as they are erected and dismantled - and keep records of the rarest models.

“Cranes are fascinating things,” says Dave. “They are taller than anything around them and seem to be held there by magic. And they can be pretty exclusive. Limited editions if you like,” he says proudly.

“There were only seven 500Bs made in the world from 1999 to 2006 and we have four of them. We have 11 of the world population of just 20 320Bs. Am I proud of them? Absolutely.”

Tower cranes can only be erected by another crane - a self-erected model. The process fascinates people: “There’s a guy in Leeds who rings us twice a week to find out our erection and dismantling schedules. He turned up to see them happening where-ever they are in the country, rain or shine.

“Lots of guys in London turn up to photograph them. They cut a striking sight.”

The most common question Dave and his team get asked is why cranes don’t blow over.

“It’s all down to the right amount of concrete ballast at the base,” he says. “They are built to withstand winds of 160mph but if the ballast is calculated wrongly, it can go badly wrong. In 2009 one of our cranes tipped over and fell into a block of flats, leaving the operator disabled. An inquiry proved the construction company had got their sums wrong for the base.

“People ask us if it’s a dangerous job and it can be. But if you compare the number of accidents to man hours, it’s very safe.

“The second most popular question is how does the crane operator get up to his cab in the clouds, and the third is how does he go to the loo.”

The answers? He has to climb up the inner well of the crane shaft, checking every joint as he goes. For toilet breaks he has to climb down again. But as that can take half an hour, for emergencies the cab is equipped with a bottle filled with absorbent crystals.

It’s a small price to pay, says Dave, who still hankers for his days as a crane operator: “It’s really nice up there,”he says. “You’ve got your radio on, a flask of tea and no one bothers you.”