Future ready: Building a strong local supply chain


Local authorities across the country rightly continue to invest in much-needed infrastructure to future-proof communities and boost economic growth. As they do so, they expect the schemes they commission to be transformative, with benefits for the community that reach beyond the build. Balfour Beatty believes that local authorities have every right to expect that as much as possible of the public money they invest in infrastructure is spent locally, where it can deliver the greatest benefit to local communities. That is why we prioritise the use of local small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) and locally sourced labour, goods and services – to maximize local spend and help build business capacity and supplier networks in the communities we operate in.

SMEs are at the heart of driving local economic growth and supporting employment. They are, in our experience, also excellent innovators with strong knowledge of their local areas. Procuring locally furthermore minimizes the impacts on the environment while ensuring greater predictability of factors such as delivery times. 99.9%1 of UK construction contracting businesses are SMEs, making them the backbone of the construction industry. They underpin the sector in two ways: via public sector clients procuring directly from them; and by acting as suppliers or Tier 2 or 3 contractors to the main contractor.

Far from being at odds with smaller businesses, Balfour Beatty believes we have a symbiotic relationship with those in our supply chain. We know that our supply chain is much more than a group of individual sub-contractors and suppliers: it is a key part of our business, core to our own performance and reputation as a company. We want to build lasting relationships with them because those strong partnerships are key to our mutual continued success.

However, from our conversations with many of our suppliers, there are a number of ways in which contracting authorities and tier 1 contractors can do more to support small businesses in the sector and help remove barriers which remain to them being able to win more work.

Key points

  1. To develop a strong local supply chain requires robust data on the current landscape; the setting of stretching targets for improvement; and effective measurement against those targets.

  2. Balfour Beatty invites other UK companies to follow its lead and commit to ambitious spending pledges with SMEs, and to collect accurate data on the size and location of businesses it is spending with.

  3. Suppliers need visibility of future pipelines of work from tier 1 contractors as well as from the public sector, to give them the confidence to invest in skills, innovation and new equipment. Large contractors should improve visibility of contract opportunities.

  4. The construction industry skills gap will only be bridged if SMEs take on apprentices. Ideas such as shared apprenticeships should be further explored to help make this possible.

  5. Public sector bodies and large contractors should both work to improve the overly-bureaucratic procurement processes which can be a barrier to SMEs winning work.

  6. Those using SMEs to undertake work must rigorously adhere to fair payment terms.

  7. Framework arrangements can increase opportunities for SMEs, either directly or via the supply chain, if those operating the framework make it a requirement and the contractors involved deliver on their commitments.

Understanding the starting point – and the end goal

In order to be able to create a resilient supply chain, it is first important to establish an accurate baseline. This is key in helping to understand the current situation. It requires the gathering of data on the supply chain including details relating to the size of companies, the nature of services they provide and the amount of spend they are currently receiving. 

Once an understanding of the current picture has been established, the next step is to set a target for improvement. Depending on the priority, this could be a target to increase the amount spent via SMEs for example, or to improve the diversity of the type of company being used, or simply to use companies over a specific geographic area.

Of course, vital to ensuring that the strategy is being delivered and the targets are being reached is the measurement. This should be done at specifically defined intervals and should be independently assessed in order to ensure the accuracy and rigor of the data.

SME spend

Balfour Beatty is proud that we were the first UK contractor to commit to a specific target spend with SMEs. This has resulted in us spending approximately £7bn with SMEs across the country in the past five years. In doing so, we have exceeded Government targets for SME procurement spend. While the target is for 33% of overall supply chain spend to go on SME procurement, Balfour Beatty averages over 40% a year.

Balfour Beatty has its data independently assessed by
Dun & Bradstreet - the leading supplier of data, insights and analytics. Dun & Bradstreet provide a breakdown of both our overall spend in the supply chain but also specific SME spend
by size, type and region.

We also collaborate with a range of interested third parties such as the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and WEE Connect (promoting Women Owned business), implementing initiatives to enhance how we interact with SMEs and improve payment terms for all of its UK supply chain partners.

Visibility of future opportunities

For SMEs, having visibility and certainty of future work is of vital importance. Most of our suppliers tell us that they have a secure pipeline of work of between six months and a year. Future opportunities must be communicated early and in enough detail to enable individual suppliers to make investment decisions on skills, capability, equipment and production. In contrast, a lack of certainty around the future pipeline of work can be a disincentive for firms to invest in new technology and in other areas.

While many of our suppliers say that their business is up to date with the latest opportunities in the UK construction industry pipeline and with opportunities in their localities, it is important to note that the level of detail provided is not always enough for companies to make the significant investments they might otherwise commit to.

Of course, the need to provide granular detail on opportunities as far in advance as possible applies to contractors as much as to public sector bodies. This is why Balfour Beatty aims to provide our suppliers with as much visibility of our pipeline of work as possible. We also organise events such as ‘buyers days’, to help us meet local subcontractors and suppliers for current and future projects and hold seminars to advise on what suppliers need to do and what accreditations are needed in order to join our supply chain. However, we recognize that there is always room for improvement, and we keep the ways in which we communicate future opportunities to our supply chain under constant review. We are currently considering how we can better communicate the opportunities we have in our pipeline to our supply chain.

It is also imperative that contracting authorities and main contractors continue to simplify processes and reduce the bureaucracy and administrative burden that continues to act as a barrier to SMEs in accessing more opportunities.

Scape and SMEs

The Scape Framework delivers intelligent and cost-effective civil engineering services to our customers via an OJEU compliant route, but also brings another major benefit in that it enables us to contribute to projects as early as Inception Phase, where the most value can be added. This gives us both the time and opportunity to co-ordinate with SMEs to ensure that at least 85% of all sub-contracted work packages are delivered by smaller contractors.

We’ve also combined efforts with our tier 1 supply chain to extend opportunities to even smaller businesses within our local communities. Such measures have included:

  • Supply chain engagement days to encourage our tier 1 supply chain to mirror the same KPI principals within the procurement of any tier 2 trades
  • Setting banded targets to monitor this and integrating the engagement of tier 2 SMEs into our procurement assessment criteria (pre sub-contract award)
  • Listening to our supply chain partners and offering our expertise where required, for example, analysing training plans

To enable us to expand our use of SMEs even further, we ensure we undertake rigorous monitoring using a spend analysis mapping tool to manage our investment with SMEs by location and type.

Collaborative frameworks

There is a common misconception that collaborative frameworks restrict opportunities for SMEs, however this is not the case in Balfour Beatty’s experience. Indeed, some of the leading frameworks, such as those operated by the North West Construction Hub and Scape Group, recognising the importance of using construction procurement as a tool to spread the spend as widely as possible through the local economy via local businesses and improving skills, have ensured that the needs of local SMEs were prioritised as the frameworks were developed. They have done this through steps such as requiring framework partners to commit to a high percentage of SME supply chain spend within a set distance of the scheme, making this a key performance indicator on each project. SMEs can also form consortia or Joint Ventures to bid to deliver frameworks themselves.

This point lies at the heart of the issue: framework arrangements can actually increase opportunities for SMEs, either directly or via the supply chain, if those operating the framework make it a requirement and the contractors involved deliver on their commitments.

Furthermore, ensuring that the necessary skills and capability are being built in the local area in advance of larger schemes being commissioned in order to create a virtuous circle is a key measure. Again, the most effective frameworks have these strategies in place: others should consider following this best practice.

Brexit and skills

Long-term stability is critical to a sustainable supply chain. However, skills shortages in the construction industry are a long-standing issue which is having a significant impact on our suppliers. With demand for workers outstripping supply, wages are driven up, impacting the ability to deliver schemes to budget and putting margins under strain. In some cases, a shortage of skilled labour puts at risk the deliverability of schemes. This is particularly significant given the large numbers of skilled workers that will be needed to deliver the housing and infrastructure projects planned across the country over the next decade.

Two-thirds of all apprentices in construction receive their training via SMEs2, which dominate the sector. Smaller businesses have a prominent role in the UK construction market and a significant role to play in the continued health of the sector and the wider economy.

Balfour Beatty believes that the skills shortage across the construction industry is such that all the Apprenticeship Levy being paid by construction companies must be reinvested in high-quality construction apprenticeships. We are encouraging companies in our supply chain to consider setting up apprenticeship schemes to train the next generation and future-proof their businesses and the sector as a whole, but this needs to be done more consistently across the board. The construction industry skills gap will only be bridged if more employers take on apprentices.

Balfour Beatty has been working closely with Government on the Apprenticeship Levy. In our experience, there is a need to provide more support to smaller employers to ensure they understand how the Apprenticeship Levy can benefit them. Many of them remain unaware of it or view it as an initiative for larger businesses only and risk being left behind as a result. The trade-level jobs are all carried out by the supply chain, which must be encouraged to undertake training. The Levy will not achieve its underlying goals or deliver its full potential unless as many small businesses as possible take on apprentices.

It is important to remember that for a small business, taking on an apprentice represents a relatively more significant commitment. To take on an apprentice requires the employer to provide meaningful work. The number of apprenticeship places in the industry is restricted by the number of live projects, investment and security of future pipework of work. For a small business to commit to taking on an apprentice requires as much certainty around future work and visibility of the future pipeline as possible.

Balfour Beatty has been working on innovative ways to solve some of these issues. We believe that one way of encouraging more small construction firms to take on apprentices would be to allow Levy spend on shared apprenticeships and to promote their use. Shared apprenticeships are an effective way of addressing the difficulties faced by some smaller firms in sustaining long-term placements for the full duration of an apprenticeship. They allow apprentices to be employed by a specially-created body rather than one company, and then to be placed with different companies to complete the qualification. This gives the apprentice a range of skills and experience, and allows contractors to participate in apprentice training even if they have only short placements available.

Balfour Beatty believes that a strong and resilient construction industry needs a robust domestic skills base. As a British company with a hundred year legacy in the UK, Balfour Beatty is committed to addressing the skills shortages in the UK and investing in home grown talent. Balfour Beatty employs over 150 apprentices each year in the UK in addition to the 320 currently under training in a diverse range of roles across the business. We employ around 700 more young people on graduate and part-time higher education/degree schemes.

Balfour Beatty is also a long standing member of The 5% Club, an employer led organization set up by our Chief Executive, Leo Quinn over four years ago, aiming to address the skills gap by getting more young people into earn to learn opportunities, encourage businesses to take the lead on training and promote apprenticeships as a positive career decision.


Balfour Beatty values the vital role SMEs play in delivering employment and growth to local communities. They also play a key role as part of our supply chain, helping us to deliver for our customers. We value our supply chain. We want to be their customer of choice, establishing strong, mutually beneficial long-term relationships enabling their businesses and ours to grow and develop together. It is through a strong, resilient supply chain that shares our values that Balfour Betty delivers excellence.

Working in partnership, we will close gaps in skills, capability and competitiveness so that together we can deliver the infrastructure of the future.

The UK’s largest construction contractor, Balfour Beatty, was founded in 1909 and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. With 15,000 employees and over 40 offices in the UK, Balfour Beatty finances, develops, builds and maintains the increasingly complex infrastructure that underpins the UK’s daily life.

Balfour Beatty finances, develops, delivers and maintains some of the largest and most complex projects in the world. Our supply chain, made up of the companies which provide the materials we use and the subcontractors who work on our sites, is critical to helping us deliver them. We aim to build strong, long-term partnerships with these companies, based on shared values, to help us deliver excellence to our customers. Working in partnership and collaborating relentlessly means we can, together, constantly improve safety, quality and efficiency. These strong relationships are the platform on which the construction and infrastructure industry is built.

Balfour Beatty has a supply chain of around 10,000 companies, many of them based close to the schemes we build and maintain across the country. We have worked in partnership with a large number of these for over a decade: in some cases we have worked together for over thirty years. We spend two thirds of our revenues in procuring goods and services from suppliers: over 30% of this spend is with our top 100 partners.