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Comment | Time for engineers to rebut the bad headlines

Mark Hansford

As we enter June, we move into mid-year review territory. So, if we, as an industry, were being reviewed, just where would we be? What would our 360° feedback sound like?

The Sunday Times is a good enough barometer. Last month it suggested we are far from where we need to be, with the front page of the business section screaming: “Crossrail needs £500M bailout”, with the story revealing how the project is “drifting substantially over budget”, raising “more questions about Britain’s ability to deliver mega-projects on time and on budget”. Ouch.

Nestling alongside this, was news that Carillion’s board had repeatedly vetoed a rescue plan in the shape of a rights issue since 2013, in favour of bringing on more debt.

Bad start, got worse. Inside was an analysis piece bemoaning how little progress has been made with Heathrow’s third runway, High Speed 2 (HS2) and the roll out of high speed broadband. On face value, we are not looking too outstanding.

But let’s take these things in turn. Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan has been nothing but honest since the turn of the year, telling everyone from the Transport for London board to the annual lecture of the Worshipful Company of Paviors that his project’s budget is now unbelievably tight. But really, so what if it does cost £500M more? On a £15bn programme what is that? Three percent? That cannot count as failure surely? Find an infrastructure project worldwide that has hit its numbers. Delivering something as complex as Crossrail to within 3% of budget surely has to be seen as success, not failure.

And what then of Carillion’s directors rejecting their rescue plan? Frankly, this has to be seen as positive too. Because as more evidence emerges to show that Carillion’s directors simply mismanaged their business, the more it means the rest of the industry is all right; or if not all right, at least has enough time to embrace some Project 13 thinking and reform itself. In the same issue of the Sunday Times, and in a rare interview, Ray O’Rourke lays bare his scars from expanding his firm into offsite construction just as the recession hit, while reasserting his firm belief in, and pride in, what he is doing to drive the industry forward.

So then, what of the political “dithering” that is leaving Heathrow in no man’s land, HS2 still at the very early and cancellable stages and broadband just a nice idea? The industry can hardly be blamed for that, can it?

Unless it is in our consistent inability to emphasise just how important these projects are. As we can see in this month magazine, the case for connecting cities with infrastructure is almost unchallengeable and that there is now an absolute need for confidence to pursue a “decide and provide” approach.

And here is where we need to get better. Be more vocal. Be more united in the public domain. How do we do that? Well, it is controversial I know, but one way is to make the ICE’s Council a far more assertive beast. ICE members will shortly be asked to vote in a ballot that will transfer trusteeship away from Council members to a new trustee board. On one hand it could be seen as a dilution of democracy. But let’s be realistic – voter turnout for ICE Council elections barely scrapes past 5%, so no-one can really get too up in arms about it.

And the other way to look at this – as set out by the President in the pages of this month’s magazine – is that it frees Council to debate and form firm opinions on the big issues that matter. And if by freeing it of the need to get bogged down in the detail of the ICE’s finances, these 44 influential industry leaders can surely get down to agreeing a stance on the big issues that matter and be vocal about them. Surely that has to be worth a go. Because Heathrow has been bogged down too long; HS2 is moving too slowly; and broadband is a national embarrassment. So what does the mid-year review show? A need for improvement, for sure. Can the next six months see that improvement? For sure.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

 

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