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Interview: Incoming ICE President Sir John Armitt on engineers, innovation and equality

Incoming ICE President Sir John Armitt has strong views on the profession’s need to embrace technology, take responsibility for training and open up to broader, more diverse skills.

Making things happen. That’s probably the best way to sum up the life mission of Sir John Armitt. He has delivered grand projects like the London 2012 Olympics, High Speed 1, Sizewell B nuclear power station and the Second Severn Crossing. And he has turned around ailing businesses like Costain or Railtrack (in the latter case turning it into Network Rail), as well as transforming an entire industry’s approach to technology.

It’s a mission that has given Armitt an unbelievable CV and makes him arguably the most respected civil engineer in the UK today. Knighted in the 2012 New Year Honours for services to engineering and construction as chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, he is a rare beast - a statesman loved by his industry for his engineering and trusted and respected by government and investors for his business nous.

John Armitt

Armitt: “We have to be showing the opportunity and advantage in overcoming the innate conservatism in clients who want safe investment and to be assured”

He’s got there, he says, by recognising a long time ago the value of working at the interfaces - and in particular the interface between government and industry.

And that has given him a clear view on the role of the engineer in making infrastructure happen, particularly today when government cash is tight and private investors are wary.

“Money only comes from the public at the end of the day,” he says. “One of the challenges for us as engineers is to engage up front with the affordability argument. There is a tendency - and I’m sure I’m as guilty as anybody - to want to design and build something as good as it can possibly be. But we don’t do that at home do we? We do what we can afford.”

“That’s the challenge. And there is an enormous potential for innovation here.”

“As long as we are just doing what we’ve always done and totting up the bill at the end, then we are not going to get innovation”

“How do we connect A to B with a sum of money that we can afford?” he asks, by way of example. “As long as we are just doing what we’ve always done and totting up the bill at the end then we are not going to get innovation.”

He rejects the suggestion that, instead of building a new high speed railway between London and the North, more innovative thinking could lead to digital signalling - and the same capacity boost at much lower cost.

“If you can take an existing railway line and get the same capacity increase by installing new signalling then that’s the thing to do. But installing a completely new signalling system is a massive task.”

High Speed 2

So he’s firmly behind High Speed 2 (HS2). In fact he has been since his experience of trying to upgrade the West Coast Main Line when in charge at Railtrack and then Network Rail.

“There is a time when you just can’t keep repairing a Victorian railway and you have to put a new one down,” he states. “The most reliable railway in Britain is High Speed 1 and it is no secret why,” he adds.

So he supports HS2, but also - despite reservations about software and signalling projects - the digital railway.

“The growth in demand means we are going to need both,” he says. I suspect that by 2050 we will have HS2 and the original network running at capacity - a digital capacity.”

But he does have concerns about the latter - or to be more precise, our industry’s ability to promote the latter.

“The role of engineers should be to create excitement about opportunities around new products, new materials, new ways of doing things”

“Do we act as servants of our clients or [as] people with fresh ideas and guidance? We have to do the latter. We have to be showing the opportunity and advantage in overcoming the innate conservatism in clients who want safe investment and to be assured,” he says.

“The easiest way to be assured is to look backwards. The role of engineers should be to create excitement about opportunities around new products, new materials, new ways of doing things,” he insists.

“We have to guard against the easy option and pull off the rack the one we designed 10 years ago,” he says.


Armitt has first-hand experience in innovation. He was chairman of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from 2007 until 2012. And he’s far from convinced that civil engineering as a profession does enough.

“We need to be working with researchers, innovators,” he asserts. “It is frustrating to me if you go onto any construction site and see bundles of reinforcement being stuffed into shuttering. Despite all the talk why have we not come up with an alternative concrete where everything goes into the mixer?” he demands.

“Just look at the aerospace industry or the automotive industry. We haven’t seen that degree of change,” he says.

Does procurement hold things back?

“On the one hand we have had conservatism of procurement,” he agrees. “But equally we have to be striving harder to come forward with new ideas.”

A recent visit to New York and a trip to the top of the new Freedom Tower brought this home to him.

“I have always struggled to understand how employers see it as someone else’s job to train people to work for their company”

“When you go up the Freedom Tower now they give you an iPad and it portrays what you can see around you and gives you a bit of history. Point it at the Empire State Building and it tells you it was built in 11 months.

“ Now we all know the Empire State Building went up phenomenally quickly but the point is we don’t do anything faster today,” he says.

Or maybe just not here in the UK. “The Chinese recently have been doing some interesting things and that happens when you set a goal and objectives,” he notes.

Ah, the Chinese - coming to steal our projects and our jobs - or so some would have you believe. Armitt is not one of them. “Why should we treat the Chinese any different to the French, Germans or Spanish?” he asks. Is it because they have a reputation of being difficult to work with?

“A couple of years ago I was on a Middle East lecture tour and met the team behind a major project in Abu Dhabi. It was being managed by Brits with an unusual main contracting joint venture of Chinese, Greeks and Turks and it was going very well. The comment I got from the project director was that the Chinese focus on getting [the project] built and they are offended when they fall behind and do everything they can to get back on track,” he recalls.

Global competition

“UK engineers have been working globally for the last 20 years and I don’t think there is any political debate about open trade. We as a country should be open to trading with China as much as any other country,” he states.

“I understand the fear. Do we lose control? You have to look at what Nissan, Tata and Toyota have achieved in the UK. They have turned around our car industry to the extent that is now more successful than it has ever been.

“People are working; it is good for our exports; and it is good for our technology,” he says.

“The British car industry had a terrible reputation. We didn’t do design for manufacture and assembly,” he notes.

“One of the most important things we can do is recognise that major projects today engage much wider skills and we as civil engineers can co-ordinate all that.”

“It is a lesson we still have to learn in the construction industry,” he adds.

“If you go the Royal Academy of Engineering’s annual research presentations, the thing that strikes you, no matter who goes up on stage, is that they are multi-national, diverse teams and we should be recognising the value of that,” he says.

Which brings us neatly to the diversity issue and NCE’s Engineering Equality programme.

Earlier this month Armitt’s opposite number at the Institution of Engineering & Technology Naomi Climer put the lack of progress on the issue right back at the top of the agenda by calling for the use of quotas in her presidential address (NCE 15 October).

Quotas for equality

Armitt is circumspect about this. “You’ve specifically pursued the diversity angle. Naomi Climer is absolutely right to suggest initiatives to help address the lack of diversity in engineering, and we welcome her drive.

“But there is no quick answer. We should all do more to tackle the imbalance and ensure that careers in engineering are accessible to all.”

“It starts at school, it starts with parents.”

And that brings us on to careers guidance. Armitt is convinced that the civil engineering profession at large needs to do far more here to help.

Nurturing budding engineers

He cites research done by training body City & Guilds - which he chairs - that shows that you have to start influencing career decisions of children at age seven - and if someone has been turned off science and maths by age 12 you are not going to get them back.

Armitt is clear that for this industry “help” must come in the form of hard government cash - taken away from government training budgets.

“It comes back to using the resources you have and deciding what is affordable,” he says.

“Governments should focus more on education and less on training.

“We should be spending more money on careers guidance and less money on employers training people. I have always struggled to understand how employers see it as someone else’s job to train people to work for their company.”

Investment in training

Armitt offers short shrift to those who might complain that in an industry with notoriously low margins and limited visibility of future workloads, they simply cannot afford to pick up the training tab.

“We as engineers have to ensure we are getting the right values into procurement and getting clients to accept that they may have to pay a bit more. We all have the ability to influence that debate.

“Clients have a strong influence here and clients are also members of this Institution. And if they are prepared to accept a shoddier product then they are taking some responsibility.

Key to this is getting the ultimate investor to take a long-term view and pay for a quality product, says Armitt.

He refers back to the Olympic Park where a very conscious decision was taken to put in high quality hard landscaping - it cost more in the short-term but will save money in the long-term.

Quality is long term

“These are very conscious decisions,” he says. “I went to the Sydney Opera House a couple of years ago. Now that was an expensive building. But it is still in very good condition. These are real choices we have to make,” he stresses.

So what can we expect to see that tackles these challenges in Armitt’s year as President? Well, actually, not much.

“One of the things that has changed here at the ICE is the recognition that the most important person is not the President; it is the presidential team.

“You as President are passing a baton and the 12 months is to an extent representational,” he explains.

Broader ICE membership

That’s not to say Armitt feels ineffectual; rather he points to the three years it has taken to get to the position the ICE is now in with regards to broadening the membership base.

A move to reintroduce the Associate Member grade (AMICE) for those working within the profession but not at chartered civil engineer level is approved by ICE Council and now awaiting Privy Council approval.

Armitt was instrumental in getting the move through Council and is naturally very pleased with the result.

“One of the most important things we can do is recognise that major projects today engage much wider skills and we as civil engineers can co-ordinate all that,” he says. “So the more we can bring these skills together to debate the more influential the Institution can be.”

Frustratingly, Privy Council approval will take up to 15 months. But Armitt is keen to encourage members to start thinking differently about fellow members straight away.

“The fact it is going to take 15 months to get sign off should not act as a brakem” he says. “We can get on with encouraging people to engage with us. Having a rule doesn’t really change anything. You have got to change behaviours.”

Armitt is a huge believer in the power of behavioural change. And that’s the same, whether it is embracing technology, driving a highly trained workforce, or recognising diversity. “It all comes back to behaviours. It always does,” he says.

  • Watch the Presidential Address on 3 November at 6pm. Register here

Armitt’s career

John Armitt

John Armitt: From Laing to the Olympics via Railtrack and Costain

Sir John Armitt graduated in civil engineering from Portsmouth College of Technology in 1966 and took his first job with John Laing Construction.

He spent 27 years with John Laing on various projects including the Sizewell B nuclear power station, rising to become chairman of Laing’s international and civil engineering divisions.
In 1993 he was appointed chief executive of Union Railways, the company responsible for implementing the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

From 1997 to 2001 he was chief executive of Costain Group, which he transformed from loss-making contractor to one turning a steady profit.

He left to become chief executive of Railtrack and led its post-Hatfield transformation into Network Rail.

He left there in 2007 to take on arguably his most high-profile role yet - chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA).

He led the team responsible for the construction of the venues and infrastructure for the London 2012 Olympics, including the Olympic Park, planning and funding transport for the Games and regulating advertising and street trading.

Many people consider Armitt a real hero of the Olympic Games, as the ODA delivered the venues on time and under budget nine months before the start of the Olympics.

He left in 2014 and is currently chairman of the National Express Group and City & Guilds.

He is also deputy chairman of the Berkeley Group and a Transport for London board member and a board member of the Airports Commission.

In September 2013 the Armitt Review, his independent review of long term infrastructure planning in the UK, was published. It is now Labour Party policy.

Armitt was awarded the CBE in 1996 for his contribution to the rail industry and received a knighthood in 2012 for services to engineering and construction.

Readers' comments (2)

  • stephen gibson

    Mr Armitts comments are similar to those of Politicians, who fundamentally don't understand how the construction industry works and why it is so fundamentally different to manufacturing.

    To compare civil engineering to the airspace industry is ironic. It is in fact a perfect example of why the industries are and always will remain completely different. The commercial airline industry is essentially dominated by only two companies – Boeing and Airbus. Both companies are extremely conservative, applying the same proven techniques for decades. Consistency is the key to safety, which can be well controlled in a factory mass production manufacturing environment. The environment and standards in which a plane operates are essentially the same all around the world. As both operate essentially in a monopoly there is more than enough money to undertake research along with tax payer funded grants.

    Where as in civil engineering every project is bespoke. This is not a choice, it is a fundamental requirement. There are many factors which influence design which are different at every site. For example to design a soakaway, you need to understand the site permeability, hydrogeology, risk of solution features, proximity to foundations, appropriate design flood return periods, effect of failure etc. In 20 years I have never had a site with the same design or construction and rightly so. Often the old fashioned ways are best, a soakaway is often best constructed with gravels, as it has for thousands of years, not needing a manufactured product at all.

    “Can you name another industry that separates design from manufacturer?” asks Mr Armitt. We don’t manufacture civil engineering work at all, so how is the question even relevant? We don’t manufacture housing estates, roads or sewerage systems. We design them and construct them - they are all unique. They are not mass produced in factories.

    At the top for many years there is a flawed logic that bigger is always better. If Contractors merged with Consultants they would become bigger and more efficient. Contractor domination in some areas (NHS PFI and the Highway Agency etc) according to the Public Accounts Committee has been a disaster.

    Such domination has never worked in any industry. Just look at what happened when the Banking industry was allowed to merge (Lloyds/TSB etc). Bigger means lower competition, less communication, greater inefficiency, reduced quality and higher costs. Demerged TSB now offers a far more innovative and cost effective range of products then it did when it was part of Lloyds.

    But there is hope. In every market there are signs that when permitted, free and fair competition can break through the cartels – just look at Lidl and Aldi in the supermarket sector. If the civil engineering industry is to improve efficiency then it is breaking up the cosy frameworks and let the civil engineering equivalents of Lidl flourish in a fair and open construction market. The public sector should follow the private sector model of free and fair competition and stamping out discrimination against SMEs by the dominant players.

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  • Hi Stephen, just wanted to say thanks for taking the time to post such a great comment.

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