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Death of the do-it-all tsar

Municipal engineers

Damian Arnold charts the rise and fall of the borough engineer in 20th century Britain.

The decline of the borough engineer from do-it-all tsar is told with general lament by those who lived through it in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the 1930s, a city engineer's department would have dealt with a portfolio that included roads, traffic, water, drainage, coastal defence, sewers and sewerage, utilities, planning, public housing, waste, public baths, crematoria, parks and leisure - all from one department.

The gradual break up of the municipal engineer's remit into new specialisms within different departments polarised the built environment and destroyed the long term vision on which many of Britain's towns and cities were designed, according to many former municipal engineers who spoke to NCE.

Former city engineer for Leicester, Derrick Sharpe, who joined the profession in the 1940s, says: 'I regarded myself as a generalist - a community or people person. Sewage works, pumping stations and townhalls were not only functional but statements of vision.

'As municipal engineering split into specialisms, it became more detached. Now there is more short-termism and expediency,' he says.

Sharpe cites a system of five ring roads built in Leicester in the 1920s to cater for increasing traffic levels as a case in point. In later years, planners, who were no longer part of the city engineer's department, intervened and the ring roads were built on.

The old county borough council was based on a tripartite powerbase of town clerk, borough engineer and lawyer. Massive housing schemes cast the engineer in a paternalistic light, underlined by the kind of status in the borough that today's civil engineers could only dream about.

Legend has it that when the county surveyor walked into council meetings, everyone stood up and that if young employees spoke to the borough engineer before being spoken to, they would be sacked.

Sharpe says: 'When I came to Leicester in 1959, the city engineer had a chauffeur-driven Bentley.' Municipal engineers concede that such heady status led, in some cases, to arrogance. One engineer remembered a county engineer being compared to Napleon.

To become such an influential figure, a trainee engineer would spend six months at a time engaged on a new engineering discipline.

The Institution of Municipal Engineers 'Testamur' exam as late as 1964 covered engineering drawing, mathematics, applied mechanics, principles of electricity, heat, light and sound, strength of materials and theory of structures.

Part two covered surveying, site investigation, highway engineering, engineering design, building construction, public health engineering, sewerage, sewage disposal, public cleansing, highway planning, traffic engineering and town planning practice. Part three covered law and administration.

After the Second World War, the municipal engineer's brief expanded rapidly. The nationalisation of land use and development rights in 1947 fired the first warning shots.

The Buchanan Report of 1963, warning of the consequences of unsustained traffic growth, made road building an increasing preoccupation for municipal engineers.

ICE local government officer Robert Huxford says: 'It gave the borough engineer an impossible task. One by one, areas of the borough engineer's responsibility began to peel away.

Various different specialisms within local authorities established themselves. Public housing, for example, became a department in its own right, as did planning and environmental health.'

Derrick Sharpe trained in the old county of Huntingdonshire as an articled pupil with a county surveyor in the mid-1940s. 'I trained with a man who was county surveyor, county architect, county planning officer, estates engineer and county engineer. He was responsible for all of the physical activities of that local authority.'

Change coincided with retirement, adds Sharpe. 'When the county engineer retired, planning and estates management were often separated. Increasingly, the borough engineer was purely in charge of the engineering side.'

The reorganisation of local government into a two-tier system in 1974 accelerated change. New county councils set overall policy and district councils carried it out through agency agreement.

The old county borough council which had been a 'model of self sufficiency' lost control of energy and water, which had their own authorities established. Highways were subsumed into county councils while district councils took over leisure and refuse collection, housing and land use planning.

Association of Municipal Engineers chairman John Bircumshaw, who had worked for local authorities in drainage, joined one of the new water authorities after the reorganisation.

He recalls: 'It ended the days of engineers doing multi-disciplinary training. Each new department had its own budget but bureaucracy increased.

'District councils were left with very few engineering functions. After 1974, it became more difficult for engineers in the smaller district councils to get training agreements to become chartered with the IME. This was a factor which persuaded IME members to join up with the Civils,' he says.

The municipal engineer's standing within the local authorities faded rapidly after the local government changes, although ICE vice president Mark Whitby recently argued that the failure of the public to accept the urban solutions of the 1960s had already 'discredited' the profession.

Other professionals began to get the job of running the engineering department. They were more willing to do the bidding of their more political masters.

The new style of built environment manager was put under more political pres- sure as party politics became more dominant in local government.

New elected members with a business or trade union background further undermined the vision of engineers to shape the built environment. Sharpe says: 'These men were more interested in policy than in detail. The problem was that politicians began to dabble in the technical side.

'In order to do that they didn't want a powerful engineer and chief officer in charge. They deliberately fragmented their technical advice. This exposed councils to a lack of sound advice,' he says.

Interference from politicians when Sharpe was city engineer in Leicester between 1973 and 1985 caused him to retire early. 'I once told a member that the roads in one area of the city needed spending on, and was told that we shouldn't say that for political reasons.

'I felt all the citizens were entitled to a uniform service, but opinions from engineers that were not politically favourable were not wanted. It became less acceptable to just tell the truth,' says Sharpe.

The multi-skilled municipal engineer may yet return despite half a century of decline. Whitby said recently that multi-disciplinary teams were already forming to plan urban environments and model how vehicles and pedestrians can co-exist.

According to Huxford: 'The Government's Urban Taskforce has recognised the need for a 'renaissance engineer' who is more socially aware and can synchronise the built environment. The built environment cannot be fully serviced when urban professionals are split into special disciplines.

'The new urban agenda gives engineers a chance to stake a claim to be at the forefront, but it will mean a change of ways,' he says.

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