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Engineering must be at the heart of public service

It is good to hear Highways Agency chief executive Archie Robertson underline the need to “beef up” his in-house engineering and project-delivery expertise. It is something the entire public sector should note.

Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

Is this a sign that, at last, there is a realisation that engineering excellence really does hold the key to properly managed infrastructure? Or is it a realisation that without it the construction industry will take any public client to the cleaners.

Whichever is the truth – perhaps both in part – boosting in-house technical nous is something that has paid clear dividends over the past few years at Network Rail. As it moved from the hands-off Railtrack model to the current hands-on network operator, engineering skills have set the pace.

And as the Rail Regulator pointed out in his annual report this week, there is still much to improve at Network Rail but the organisation is now in shape to meet its targets and to continue to improve performance.

Meanwhile, the Highways Agency has clearly been through a difficult time, moving from exemplar public sector client status to virtual basket case earlier this year.

Yet, it is perhaps in part due to a laudable desire to refocus the Agency away from its suppliers and onto its customers that landed it in such difficulties with major project delivery.

I say laudable because it is absolutely right that the Highways Agency – “the network operator”, as Robertson underlines – should put its energy into making the trunk road and motorways available to car drivers rather than road contractors. We are, after all, in a “Britain where public services exist for the patient, the pupil, the people who are to be served”, as Gordon Brown put it this week.

How much better would many of our other public services be - how much better have they already become, by switching focus from the supply chain – the how to do it, to the customer – the why we do it.

That said, it is vital that the “how to” is nailed and so interesting to hear Robertson restate his desire to become a more expert client and “play his part” in decision making.While inexpert clients can deliver large programmes of infrastructure, so often success is down to solid engineering at the centre.

The lesson must continue to be learnt across the UK’s infrastructure portfolio. Top of the list must be a concerted effort to reinstate powerful “municipal engineers” at the heart of every local authority.
As politicians continue to remind us, infrastructure operation and maintenance decisions are increasingly “made as close to local people as possible and not from Whitehall”.

And without engineers at the heart of this new local infrastructure decision-making process, the private sector will always be a hard beast to manage.


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