Despite student protests and a history of bribery, corruption and negligence, students’ money will continue going to Balfour Beatty as they construct the new West Slope accommodation. Due to lease and leaseback contracts such as the one to build East Slope, the University is effectively paying Balfour Beatty each year to slowly buy back the new accommodation, at least partially funded with student’s ever-increasing rent money. A further look into the company’s history shows behaviour which does not align with the university’s ‘five core values’ of integrity, kindness, inclusion, collaboration, and courage. 

On campus, Balfour Beatty is known for disruptive construction, lights shining into bedrooms, loud drilling, and building the East and West Slope accommodations. Except for these, little else about Balfour Beatty and its history of corruption is commonly known by students.

In December 2021, Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty to one count of major fraud against the United States. As US deputy general, Lisa Monaco, explained, “they lied about the repairs [on military housing] to pocket millions of dollars in performance bonuses.” They were sentenced to pay $33.6 million in criminal fines as well as over $31.8 million in restitution to the US military, serve three years of probation, and work with an independent compliance monitor for three years. 

Image: Jude Wilson

The construction company has also faced numerous accusations of bribery. In the 1990s the Thatcher government committed aid (£238 million, equivalent to £488 million today) to Malaysia for Balfour Beatty to build the Pergau Dam. In exchange, Malaysia would provide a major arms deal. However, it was debated whether there were other unofficial bribes involved with this agreement, specifically from Balfour Beatty. In an interview in July 2000 with The Observer, barrister Jeremy Carver said that the chairman of Balfour Beatty had announced “with enormous pride that he personally had handed over the cheque to the government minister for the Pergau Dam ‘bribe’.” In 1994 the aid for this project was declared unlawful by the UK High Court, but no bribery case was ever brought against Balfour Beatty. 

However, Balfour Beatty was found in court to have bribed for contracts in 2002, when they transferred £123,310 into a Zurich bank account in exchange for a contract to construct a dam in Lesotho in Southern Africa. 

In 2004, Balfour Beatty was fined £150,000 for breaking health and safety rules after a four year old boy was electrocuted and killed by a live rail with an improperly secured gate, despite the company being warned of this weeks earlier. In an interview with the BBC, the boy’s father said that they received £7,500 compensation, which barely covered their legal fees. Just one year later in 2005, Balfour Beatty was found to be breaching the Health and Safety Act again, after the Hatfield rail disaster in which four people died. They were fined £10 million. As stated in The Telegraph, Mr Justice Mackay described Balfour Beatty’s actions as “one of the worst examples of sustained industrial negligence.”

In March 2009, Balfour Beatty was named by an official watchdog for unlawfully blacklisting trade union activists. They subscribed to the Consulting Association which provided secret information about workers and their political affiliations, and was later prosecuted for breaching the Data Protection Act. This opposition to their employees unionising has continued with them attempting in 2012 to challenge in the High Court Unite the Union’s vote for their employees to strike. Balfour Beatty lost the case.

Student opposition to Balfour Beatty on campus has been extensive. During the 2018 occupation of the East Slope construction site, the occupiers are quoted in The Tab Sussex demanding “Balfour Beatty… stop blacklisting trade union reps, and allow the trade union Unite unhindered and unsupervised access to the construction site”. This was met with, as occupiers explained to The Badger in 2018, a Balfour Beatty security guard telling an occupier “I will break your legs if you come over the fence,” and then cutting off access to toilets and heating. 

Criticism of the University for working with Balfour Beatty is still happening. Squat the Slope, who occupied Park Village accommodation in October 2022, specifically mentioned Balfour Beatty’s damage to the environment from building dams and HS2 in their open letter to the University. Their campaign demanded that “Sussex will pledge to never again sign further contracts with Balfour Beatty”. 

The Lewes Court Campaign, which was formed just last academic year, successfully demanded money back on rent for students in certain accommodations close to Balfour Beatty’s extremely disruptive – and ongoing – construction work around campus. 

Despite this ongoing resistance and history of corruption, the University of Sussex and Balfour Beatty continue to work together and construction of West Slope will officially begin in the coming months. 

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