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1998: What's going on

Alastair McLellan previews a high profile year for civil engineers, particularly those that work in the transport sector.

1997 was a year of goodbyes. As an end of an era it is likely to have stronger credentials than the more apparently suitable 1999.

Lest we forget, 1997 saw us wave goodbye to 18 years of Tory government, Britain's last major overseas outpost and this country's most famous individual. 'New' was 1997's most overused word, but not without reason.

Against a background of such epoch-making events, the construction and engineering sectors had an understandably quiet year. After the traumas of the first half of the decade, everybody got on quietly with making money. Only with the Millennium Dome debate and the eviction of the Manchester runway protesters did civil engineering regularly impinge on the public consciousness.

1998 is going to be different...

Themes of the year

Transport

For the first time in a generation, transport provision is likely to find itself regularly promoted from its traditional slot on national news programmes just before the 'And finally' item. 1998 will bring a critical mass of policy making and major projects.

On the policy front, New Labour will attempt to prove that 'integrated transport' is an idea for which the time has finally come. A White Paper setting out the proposed legislation and regulation is promised in 'the spring' (although ministers openly talk of May).

However, there are already signs that the document will not contain the kind of radical measures viewed by the transport pressure groups as necessary to create a major modal shift in transport provision -ie significantly raising the cost of private car use and transporting freight by road, as well as increasing subsidies for 'public' transport.

The main thrust of the White Paper seems likely to be provided by an attempt to increase public sector control over the now largely privatised transport network. As a result we're likely to see the creation of a National (Strategic) Rail Authority which will work alongside the rail regulator to oversee fare, investment and service levels, while local authorities will be given greater powers to influence the nature of bus franchises. A new 'super-regulator' is planned to oversee rail and bus investment and planning on a national basis.

In fact the great bulk of the general public might remain totally unaware of this supposedly keynote legislation, were it not for the plans to allow councils to charge drivers tolls in inner city areas.

The ongoing review of the nation's road programme will also be heavily influenced by the White Paper proposals. The review, being overseen by transport minister Baroness Hayman, is also due to finish in May. Most of the industry lobby groups appear to have been impressed with the peer's grasp of the issues, but most expect a further significant pruning of the programme to be announced in the spring.

There is however, one major road scheme definitely going ahead this year and the Birmingham northern relief road - Britain's first directly tolled motorway- promises to be one of the most controversial projects of the decade - a decade which can provide stiff competition for that honour.

Contractors and consultants will, unsurprisingly, be looking to the rail sector to make up for this shortfall in their traditional workload and the £3bn Channel Tunnel Rail Link will be the answer to a lot of prayers. Even the sceptics appear to have accepted that construction work will begin on 1 April and that the intention is to build the whole line from Folkestone to St Pancras in one go. However, there remains significant questions over funding which will make it a nervous 12 months for all concerned.

The regions

1998 will be the year in which Labour is forced to consider properly the implications of its efforts to give greater power to the regions. The bill which aims to give birth to the proposed nine English Regional Development Agencies in April next year will pass through Parliament (NCE 11 December) no doubt sparking a number of turf wars in Whitehall over the decentralisation of power.

Likewise the White Paper on Scottish devolution will give local authority engineers north of the border a better chance to see what degree of freedom they stand to gain.

Ones to watch

the findings of BAA boss Sir John Egan's client task force due in May.

the progress of Labour's Welfare to Work 'New Deal' scheme.

new legislation toughening up health and safety liability.

a Cabinet reshuffle with transport minister Gavin Strang tipped to walk the plank.

the implementation of the controversial SARTOR reforms of engineering education.

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