What has Jean Venables made of her year as president of the ICE? And did her gender make a difference? She talks to Jackie Whitelaw.
Jean Venables was not really ready to talk about the end of her presidential year when we did this interview on 15 October. She still had almost three full weeks to go before she hands over the role of ICE president to Paul Jowitt on 3 November. And she is planning to continue enjoying every moment of her tenure until the last second.
“I am going to miss the role very much,” she says. “It has been a wonderful opportunity.”
The highlights of the year for her are too many to single out. Regular users of the ICE website will know Venables has been keeping a regular blog detailing what she has been up to, and reading it back, she has astonished herself.
“I started my year in Scotland and my last trip was to India. It has been strenuous but very varied. And it has been a huge privilege to see so many schemes and meet so many enthusiastic members.”
“It has been a huge privilege to see so many schemes and meet so many members.”
She can pick out two achievements of which she is most proud. Venables has relished the opportunity to lead the business of the ICE − from chairing Council to balancing the budget.
“I am pleased that I have helped the institution adjust from the financial situation we were in to where we need to be,” she says. There have been significant adjustments to make − ICE commercial arm Thomas Telford’s (TTL) profits have been hit like everyone else’s in the financial crisis.
“This has led to a drop in TTL profits in recruitment, room hire and conferences. That drop had to be accommodated.”
Added to that, an initial plan to ask members to approve a 5% subscription rise was re-thought and a more recession-friendly 2.5% requested and approved.
“The new financial policy is now in place. It has not been without pain and a lot of people have worked very hard but we have made an important adjustment to suit our income and we are going to end up with a balanced budget,” Venables says.
A year spent building links with the government, especially the All Party Group on Infrastructure that the ICE administrates, is top of her list of external achievements, she says.
“We have been working with government in the widest sense − commenting on the Floods and Water Bill, the Pitt review on the 2007 floods and the Infrastructure Planning Commission (IPC).
“I am meeting the prime minister in November as part of a group discussing construction professionals.”
“What we really need to concentrate on is energy production − especially low carbon.”
One of the challenges Venables will be handing on to Jowitt is to keep up the pressure on whoever wins next year’s election to have some long term strategic plan for infrastructure development.
“What we really need to concentrate on is energy production − especially low carbon energy production. If there are going to be more electric cars and more trains there will be a sharp rise in the energy requirement and this will only be of benefit if it is from a decarbonised electricity source.”
Venables is the ICE’s first woman president but it is hard to tell, she says, if her gender has made a difference.
“Everyone has been very supportive, all over the world. It has been a little like when I started on site and I got a lot of support.” Her husband Roger has been hugely important in terms of back up.
“I couldn’t have done it without him,” she says.