MUNICIPAL ENGINEERS are learning to cosy up to the private sector consultants they once suspected of wanting to consign them to the dustbin of history.
Local authorities UK-wide are negotiating with civil engineering consultants to form long term 'top up' contracts lasting as long as five years. Under these, engineering skills will come on tap from consultants as and when the local authority needs them.
The frenzy of partnering talks, including advertisements placed by Suffolk, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Hampshire county councils in the last two weeks, stems from the Government's decision just before Christmas to allocate £8.4bn for local transport spending over the next five years (NCE 11 January).
Local authority transport directorates that have been progressively stripped of engineers as a result of spending constraints and skills shortages, now have road maintenance, road building and public transport budgets that double and even triple previous settlements.
Councils cannot raise staff levels back to those seen in the halcyon days of municipal engineering because the civil engineers with specialised local transport skills are hard to come by in the cut throat job market. Graduate numbers are dropping in hundreds every year. Inhouse resources are further stretched because of the need for councils to assess bids for transport work on quality as well as price under the Government's best value regime.
Under such constraints local authority engineers now need to embrace consultants as brothers in arms. They have been welcomed on board at Birmingham City Council and Norfolk County Council where Mott McDonald has been taken on as a long term partner. Talks are understood to be progressing at Portsmouth, Leeds and Nottingham city councils as well.
Dorset County Council's environment director Guy Spencer has experienced the culture change after signing a top up agreement with Buro Happold.
This allows the council to draw on Buro Happold staff and vice versa.
'Historically, when our staff have come into contact with external consultants they have been concerned about the future of their own jobs, ' he says. 'There has not been that reaction for this partnering arrangement. There's now a much less hostile culture.'
Top ten schemes given firm go-aheads
Leeds Inner Ring Road Stage 7. £35.6M
Tyne & Wear Centrelink £26.4M
Crawley Fastway Guided Bus.£23.9M
Derby Integrated Transport Project. £23.4M
West Midlands Outer Circle Bus Showcase. £21.3M
East Leeds Link Road. £20.7M
South Bradford Integrated Transport Improvements. £19.5M
Walsall Integrated Transport Strategy. £18M (PFI)
Southend A13 Passenger Corridor. £14.5M.
Salisbury Integrated Transport package £13.7M