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Highways & transportation - At the sharp end of transport

Working lives - The Institution of Highways & Transportation is 75 years old this month.Its president is civil engineer Mike Sharpe.

Striving for excellence is the theme of Mike Sharpe's year as Institution of Highways & Transportation (IHT) president 'because providing a basic service is no longer suffi cient'.

Throughout his career Sharpe, 57, has practised what he currently preaches in his working life.

His attraction to civil engineering began at Keighley Grammar School in Yorkshire.

'My strengths were on the science side. Civil engineering appealed to me - I had done some labouring at the local builder's where my father worked and got the flavour of it - so I applied to Newcastle University and went there in 1965.' Although he did not know it at the time, Newcastle's school of civil engineering was a veritable hotbed of IHT activism. It had supplied three IHT presidents, William Fisher Cassie, Tom Williams and Peter Hills, before Sharpe.

Sharpe chose highways and transportation as his specialism in his third year - a choice he never regretted - and although his career varied after graduation, transportation always remained as its core.

A year as an assistant site engineer in Yorkshire for contractor FG Minter came before a period of research at Salford University's Centre for Transport Studies. 'I was seconded to Manchester Airport Authority which was looking into the likely effects of jumbo jets, in terms of people, baggage, carparking, access and so on. It was all good stuff, and I got my Masters at the same time.' Back in 'real employment' with Elliott Traffic Automation, Sharpe got involved with local authorities, sorting out the hardware and software needed for transportation planning, followed by a local government appointment, with Cumberland, to work on preliminary designs for the A66 through the Lake District national park.

This turned out to be a very challenging project of enormous environmental sensitivity. 'We didn't have the tools to make the job easier then, ' he says.

'There were no methods for predicting noise, or air quality, or visual intrusion. We were not able to articulate environmental impact as we can today. But we still did a good job, helped by the landscape architects. It's an attractive road to drive along.' The job 'taught me to be aware of how the profession could change, and how one should position oneself to respond positively to change'.

Two ve year periods at Northamptonshire County Council came next, broken by a two year stint with Fife Regional Council. Time with Warwickshire followed and then Cambridgeshire, where Sharpe was appointed director of transportation.

Here he discovered what political pressure was all about In the council's Conservative administration were a future prime minister, secretary of state for transport, two junior ministers and the chairman of the 1922 Committee. The national agenda was changing with 'externalisation' being introduced and the requirement that DLOs, for example, made a percentage return on capital employed.

'The writing was on the wall, ' he says. The county had to reorganise, with the 480 people in Sharpe's department cut to 250. His engineering consultancy went to Atkins, the DLO to Ringway and the training group the way of a management buyout.

Sharpe himself went to niche transportation consultancy TPi as a regional director. Here he advises on procurement, best value and facilitation and auditing work for the Highways Agency. 'And my goodness, does such activity make clear the extent to which the construction industry has changed, in terms of language, relationships with clients, and the way the principal players can apply their skills together more effectively in a team.'

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