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Engineers must move to political centre stage


Apparently no one is interested, but the general election is finally upon us. And other than one brief debate on Newsnight and a late night discussion on Radio 4, I don't really remember transport or the infrastructure being mentioned during the hustings.

How surprising is that? Not very. After all, when seeking voters, mass congestion in the UK pales into insignificance compared to hospital waiting lists or the threat to the pound.

But of course we all know that the problems of the UK's infrastructure are at least as important, if not more so, than many of the other, higher profile voting issues. It is simply that health, education and Europe are more traditional stomping grounds for politicians.

No matter: any debate that there has been indicates that, to the public at least, the UK's transport problems, flooding, environmental protection and clean beaches are very tangible and have a massive effect on their lives. Compared to health, education and Europe, they are faced in reality far more often.

The trouble is that politicians do not understand the options or the problems well enough to debate the solutions.

And we must blame ourselves for that. For too long we have played down the importance of the nation's infrastructure.

Other issues are 'traditional stomping grounds' because no one has told the politicians otherwise. Or more likely, the other lobbies have been more voluble.

Ironically, even the engineers in politics are this week warning that government must start to take more notice of the profession's needs (see News).

But if, as is widely expected, Labour is given the mandate to continue the policies it started four years ago, civil engineers should grasp the opportunity to move towards the centre stage.

Promises have been made, money has been committed. As the director general of the Confederation of British Industry Digby Jones says in the magazine this week, the priority is delivery - we must make it our job to ensure that it happens over the next five years.

There is an unprecedented will and opportunity to link infrastructure, transport and the environment with the nation's health and European competitiveness. But only we can make this happen.

So first get out today and cast your vote. After that the work must really start. As a profession we must get into better shape to help the government to actually deliver on its infrastructure promises. We cannot afford to drop the ball now.

But we must then start to make more noise about what we are achieving and how - and of course about which areas need more attention. This means raising the profile of our congestion solutions, the nation's potholed roads, vital rail improvements and all the projects and solutions that we know will improve the quality of life in the UK.

Our challenge is to ensure that by the time of the next general election politicians seek votes on the basis of promises to improve the infrastructure.

The Institution has a big role here and so does NCE. However, it is you, as engineers on the ground, and the companies you work for, that will ultimately get the message heard.

We know we hold the answers to many of the nation's problems. We must take on the difficult task of ensuring everyone else believes it.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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