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Civils should practise what they preach


The fourth NCE/ICE State of the Nation report card once again highlights the UK's infrastructure in neglect. At C-minus, the overall grade is lower than when we started the report card project in May 2000 and, while there are isolated pockets of good news, there seems little indication that dramatic improvements are around the corner.

You could argue that this conclusion is inevitable - if all was well, there would be no need for the report card and no need to lobby government to improve the situation.

To an extent, this is correct.

And, as a means to give opinionformers and decision-makers the information they need to turn the situation around, it works very well. Feedback from engineers, the media and politicians has said as much.

However, what the report card exposes this time is not the lack of will by government to improve the nation's transport systems, water supplies, flood defences, energy supplies or communities.

It is almost universally accepted that basic and sustainable infrastructure is vital to underpin the UK's economic growth - vital to enabling government to deliver all of its other health, wealth and education aspirations.

In most sectors, the problem is not even one of not knowing what to do to create or reform this basic sustainable infrastructure. The solutions are largely there, ready and waiting to be implemented.

The hold up right now is how to deliver the known solutions to the known problems; how to cut through the procrastination, doubt and discussion and start the long awaited implementation process; how to remove the political, financial and technical barriers to allow improvements to flow.

The mistake that the civil engineering profession makes is to believe that it has no control over this stage. It is a relatively modern phenomenon, but the tendency today is for us to walk away from any responsibility towards actually enabling things to happen.

While it is very good to be able to say that the profession has all the solutions to all the problems, it is lazy and plain stupid to imagine that this is as far as our responsibilities reach.

Throughout history, whether it was railways, canals, sewers, dams or communities, we have seen professional engineers at the heart of projects, conceiving, planning and designing the works. But crucially they have also taken steps to ensure that it will be built.

So, while this latest report card will be of great use in highlighting to those outside the profession what needs to be done in the UK, it is also vitally important as a guide to the tasks facing the profession itself.

Rather than blaming government for not giving us the resources or tools we need, civil engineers would do better to concentrate on how they can convert their big ideas into life changing reality.

How are we going to make the trains run safely and on time?

How are we going to tackle traffic congestion? How are we going to reverse global warming? How are we going to cut the number of children killed by cars?

We have the answers. We now need to take control of our destiny and make things happen.

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