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Keep the bigger picture in view

I love a debate.

The current discussion on NCE 's letters pages regarding the Institution's single membership policy makes me feel good. It shows there is passion, belief and principle within civil engineering and proves there are huge numbers of engineers who really care about the profession in which they work.

The arguments go to the heart of what being a civil engineer is all about - integrity and transparency on the one hand, being modern, innovative and in touch with the needs of society on the other. We need all of these and it is clearly a fine line between success and failure.

However, from my position on the fence - for that is where I unashamedly sit - I cannot help but feel slightly uneasy. Not because the single issue debate is not important to the civil engineering profession. It is. But because I worry that it is not the most important issue in civil engineering.

And there is a difference.

Being a professional engineer is important and as an industry, construction could do with more. But we should not forget that the £60bn a year construction industry is not run exclusively from Great George Street - it may have been in the past, but it is not now.

It may also surprise some engineers to know that this is not exclusively due to any loss of status on their part but more because the industry is simply changing. It is wider, more diverse and more deeply rooted in society today. It is not just about solving problems and building infrastructure but more often requires professionals to predict the problems and identify the associated risks.

As a journalist I probably spend as much time speaking to non-(professional) engineers working in construction as I do members of the ICE. If I had remained a practising engineer six years ago, I have no doubt that things would be no different for me now. I would still have been doing business with legal, financial and project management professionals all of whom are central, whether we like it or not, to the civil engineering industry.

As a profession, civil engineers must accept that we are not alone in the industry. Nor can we afford or even want to be. This does not stop us being, or wanting to be, the most important and influential part of the industry. But to be this we must at least accept that we have lost many of the profession's historical advantages.

The single membership issue shows at least that the ICE is attempting to redress this balance - and it is why the current debate is important and good for civil engineering.

But let us not forget that actions speak louder and there is much to be done if the construction industry is to tackle the pressing needs of society and take up its responsibility for improving the built environment. The rest of the civil engineering community cannot be expected to hang around while the ICE membership resolves parochial issues.

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