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Comment | Broadening the ICE's membership is a matter of trust

Mark Hansford

Broadening the ICE’s reach by opening up membership to non-engineers is a big step, but members should trust that it is a step that needs to be taken.

Sir John Armitt is a man whose opinions demand attention. Not a man for bombast or exaggeration, he is a man who has seen much and knows much more, and generally makes his thoughts known subtly and without agenda. That’s what I wrote last month with reference to comments the ICE president had made about the future structure of the industry (he was calling for a move towards the European model where designs are generally conceived and developed by contractors in-house and, in his expert view, are more buildable as a result).

He made sense then and he makes sense now as he focuses on matters closer to home and urges ICE members to vote to broaden the Associate Member (AMICE) grade.

Armitt’s ICE proposes making membership more accessible to related professionals by merging the little used Associate and Affiliate grades of membership to create a new knowledge grade. Successful applicants would be entitled to use the letters AMICE after their name.

It’s a big step for sure. Those joining the new knowledge grade need have no specific engineering quaifications (civil or otherwise). All they would need is to demonstrate a genuine interest in civil engineering and to confirm their commitment to the ICE’s professional standards, including continuing professional development.

Armitt says it has long been his belief that opening the ICE’s doors to a broader membership will deepen industry’s collective expertise on a range of infrastructure challenges. Surely he is right; surely it has to make the ICE more relevant and, crucially, far more influential with governments of all shapes and sizes.

The UK government in particular has long bemoaned the multitude of competing voices when it comes to garnering industry’s view on infrastructure. It made this point forcefully through both its chief construction advisers and continues to do so through the Cabinet Office’s head of construction.

Armitt, of all people, will be acutely aware of this. Few civil engineers have as much kudos and have spent as much time with politicians over the last few decades as he; whether that was when he was delivering major, nationally important infrastructure projects including the London 2012 Olympics, High Speed 1, Sizewell B nuclear power station or the Second Severn Crossing, or when he was turning around failing organisations such as contracting giant Costain or rail infrastructure behemoth Railtrack (in the latter case turning it into Network Rail).

In doing all that he will, of course, have run into and called on the skills of, rafts of different professionals and been forced to question why they are not all part of the same broad church over and over again.

John Armitt

Trust in him: ICE president Sir John Armitt

Armitt says the ICE will be more relevant and more influential with a broader membership base

And if he believes the way to create this broader, more diverse church, with a louder more coherent voice as a result, is through this proposal, then it just is.

Certainly, he does not want to countenance the alternative: the ICE becoming marginalised by economists, financiers, planners and think tanks, its members called on only to crunch the numbers while strategic advice is sought elsewhere.

“We must not step away from this because it is too hard or too controversial,” says Armitt. “We will then only be asked to do the technical calculations, while others are succeeding in being relevant,” he insists.

And as Armitt says, and this is a hugely important point, qualified engineers need not fear the move. It is not devaluing the professional qualification. The letters CEng MICE will continue to denote a professionally qualified civil engineer. All that changes is that the letters AMICE would denote other built environment professionals who wish to be part of the ICE’s knowledge community.

It probably comes down to trust. The ICE needs you to put your trust in it and your president needs you to put your trust in him and offer your vote of support. It is a big step, but it is not one that Armitt of all people would be calling for without having examined all the angles and coolly, calmly and rationally determined that it is the right move. That’s just the kind of man he is.

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