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Counting the cost


Should we be worried that only fi ve civil engineers have put themselves forward as candidates in the General Election on 5 May- Without doubt the answer must be yes.

The low number proves just how removed the profession is from the nation's decision making process. It shows the profession's failure to really integrate with the society it purports to work for.

There are many reasons for this failure. Ignorance, cynicism, fear, apathy. Whatever they are, if left unchecked they will really start to undermine the standing of the civil engineering profession. This makes it a challenge that the ICE must tackle urgently.

It is hard to dispute the current opinion polls that suggest the election will deliver a third Labour term - albeit with a reduced majority.

Given this outcome we are likely to see Tony Blair focus on the domestic issues the Iraq war prevented him from tackling during his second term.

The failure by civil engineers to place themselves at the heart of this likely activity is certainly a missed opportunity.

How can we expect to lead the renewed debate on some of the most important issues affecting society - infrastructure investment, climate change, energy supply, congestion, planning and development - if we do not have representation where decisions are made?

The problem is far from new. The current crop of MPs includes just two civil engineers.

And while Lawrie Quinn will again contest his Scarborough & Whitby seat, David Chidgey has opted for retirement leaving his Eastleigh seat of 11 years.

Both have worked hard to boost the profession's voice and to introduce as many other MPs as possible to the profession.

Whether speaking on the floor of the House of Commons, hosting meetings or collaring colleagues in private, they have certainly helped to raise the profi le of the profession - if only by a degree.

But two is too small a number to really wield real influence.

And even if all of the five standing on 5 May win a seat - which they won't - civil engineering will still be a hugely under-represented profession in Westminster.

If we look across the whole of engineering, the number of MPs still only reaches seven.

Yet nine architects hold seats in parliament today, 88 lawyers, 53 teachers, 50 professional politicians and 43 journalists. These numbers give an idea of the scale of the challenge.

So what is to be done- Well with a month to go before the General Election it is a bit late to start thrusting forward names of private candidates with realistic chances of winning seats.

What we must do is use this moment to draw a line in the sand. Whether civil engineers hold two seats or fi ve seats on 6 May we must commit to a plan to improve the situation over the next four years.

The ICE is in a great position to drive this commitment.

Boosting the profession's influence in Parliament is one of the main pillars of its current revitalisation plan. Working to ensure that the names of more professional civil engineers are on future national and local ballot papers will be a sure-fire way to achieve this aim.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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