GROWING SKILLS shortages in local government mean councils face increasing risk of legal action resulting from accidents caused by poorly supervised engineering work, municipal engineers warned this week.
They said that the shortage of in-house engineers at some local authorities will make it more difficult to monitor the quality of work on their behalf by consultants.
Councils are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit engineers, many of which are needed to supervise work which is contracted out to consultants. Some have even resorted to employing non-engineers in jobs normally carried out by engineers.
Even though councils have contracted out much of their engineering work, they could still be ultimately liable for claims from accident victims 'Councils have a considerable legal liability for their technical professional services but are becoming less intelligent as clients, ' said Terry Mulroy, a director of consultant TPI who has also worked in local government.
'Ultimately most accidents come back to the chief officer at the local authority. Unless there is a strong engineering basis, it's very difficult to see how liability can be exercised, ' he added.
The brain drain to the private sector of municipal engineers over recent years has accelerated over the past few months because of increasing demand for engineers from private consultants (NCE 26 September).
It is feared that the lack of technical skill could even expose local authorities to the threat of corporate manslaughter charges if people die as a result of substandard work.
Mulroy highlighted liability for accidents caused by a lack of road maintenance, poor highway design and failure to stick to codes of practice as particular risk areas.
'This is happening at a time when the culture is getting more litigious and there are many more claims being made against local authorities, many of whom don't carry insurance.
'There are several councils, for example, that pay out more for footway accidents in terms of liability than they spend on repairing footways.'
Mulroy's fears are shared by other municipal engineers who spoke to NCE this week.
Local government Technical Advisory Group president David Thomson said the threat of legal action was a concern for smaller district and shire councils that are finding it particularly difficult to recruit engineers.
He said local authorities could protect themselves by negotiating contracts under which consultants take on liability for shoddy work.
Alternatively they could allow consultants with enough quality engineers on board to take on the client role for the local authority under a partnering agreement. But if accidents did happen, local authorities would still take all the 'flak' from the public, he said.