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Letters: Bonus culture is one to kill off

So Mark Hansford thinks that introducing a bonus culture into the construction industry will improve overall performance (Comment NCE 23 January).

While he may be able to cite some projects that have gone well where bonuses have been paid, he is in danger of confusing correlation with causation.

What about the many, many projects that deliver on time, to budget and to quality where bonuses are not paid?

And, infamously, bonuses didn’t improve the performance of the financial sector, especially with regard to risk taking.

Such evidence that exists indicates that the recipient of the potential bonus focuses on doing those things that will achieve the bonus, regardless of whether such outcomes are, in fact, in the best interests of the project overall. And it is notoriously difficult to create targets and objectives that don’t have some perverse outcomes attached to them.

In the construction industry, projects are delivered by teams of professionals who combine their talents and skills to produce the end result.

Major projects will have thousands of people, right throughout the supply chain, all doing their bit. It’s a bit rich to say that the man who sits at the top should get all the credit and the reward.

  • Derek Beaumont (M), housing contracts & partnering manager, housing and community group, Milton Keynes Council


Unhealthy: Bonus culture has had an adverse effect within many industry sectors

Unlike Mark Hansford, I am encouraged that Simon Kirby is willing to work for a bonus-free salary of £750,000.

Although the bonus culture has spread from the private sector (especially in banking) to the public sector, there is extensive research that shows money does not, ultimately, act as a motivator.

Put another way, are we really to believe that senior civil engineering professionals will not give of their very best unless incentivised?

While leadership is important to the success of any undertaking, successful project delivery is always dependent on great teamwork.

If we wish to enhance the standing of the civil engineer, Kirby’s example may remind people that for us, professional means more than simply serving ones’ own interests.

  • Tony Putsman (M),

I for one was pleased to learn that Simon Kirby has accepted a bonus-free contract at High Speed 2 (HS2) and consequently I found Mark Hansford’s Comment a dispiriting read.
Professional people are motivated by a range of factors, and dependence on big money bonuses alone will at best attract only a subset of the talent available. At worst, it skews priorities and produces undesirable (but all too predictable) outcomes.

Our once trusted banking industry is still cleaning up the damage wreaked by incentive-fuelled mis-selling and reckless risk taking, at no small cost to us taxpayers.

HS2 must indeed find big savings out of the current cost estimate, but the bulk of these will be found through the diligence and flair of the professional teams, rather than the performance of a few superstars. I welcome Simon Kirby’s bonus-free appointment and I hope that it heralds a decisive move away from money-is-all dogma of the last three decades.

  • John Drake (M)

I hope Mark Hansford’s view on bonuses was written tongue in cheek to provoke comment. I was horrified to read that he is not only in agreement with, but wants to further the use of, bonus payments for the leading professionals of our industry.

I say this as one who has spent my career in the service of local government, where the bonus culture is almost entirely alien. I am not motivated to write out of jealousy, but sheer moral indignation.

When you have been appointed to do a job, your employers expect you to perform it to the best of your ability and for that you are paid a salary.

Bonuses are nothing more than a bribe to do what you have already been paid to do, risk becoming a distraction and an end in themselves, and demean the stature of the individuals accepting them.

Elsewhere in the same issue, you report the World Economic Forum listing fiscal crises as the highest risk facing the world today and yet the economic crash in recent years, which has caused untold misery to millions of people, was at least partly attributable to the bonus culture in the banking industry. Don’t let civil engineering be sullied with the same disease.

  • David Nappin (M)
  • What do you think? Should Simon Kirby be paid on results? Let us know your view by voting in the online poll at

Abbeystead blast raises fracking fears

David Symons’ view on fracking was a refreshingly balanced view of the present position (NCE 23 January).

He mentioned the universal local concerns about air quality, earthquakes and water pollution. These are all valid but it seems another important risk is being forgotten; namely that of gas finding its way to the surface and collecting in voids.

In 1984 at Abbeystead Pumping Station, on North West Water’s Lune/Wyre transfer scheme, this is what happened, and there was an explosion which killed 16 of them.

The investigation found that the methane responsible had seeped up from coal measures 1,300m below.

This occurred through natural fissures so it is surely more likely that after fracking some gas is likely to escape upwards. This has happened in open country in the US and is bad enough, but if there are buildings and infrastructure in the area it will collect in pipelines, basements and voids under houses.

Companies carrying out drilling may say that from their investigations there is no risk, but who can ever guarantee that the geology of an area is completely understood?

Let us learn from what happened 30 years ago - we owe it to the victims of the Abbeystead explosion.

  • Frank Oldaker (M), ­

Ingham does not speak for engineers

After mopping up the muesli I involuntarily spat out a dozen lines into reading Bernard Ingham’s “industry expert” piece on nuclear energy, I have to write to you in protest (Opinion, last week).

Not because I think nuclear power doesn’t have a place in our energy supply mix, but because of his preposterous assertion that the evidence for global warming is “weak”.

I expect better editing of a magazine that represents 80,000 civil engineers, the majority of whom I venture to suggest have equally strong views about peddling such climate change-sceptic nonsense.

The jury has been out on the matter for many years.

Now is the time to be discussing what to do about slowing down warming, and civil engineers have both a duty and an ability beyond other professions to play a major part.

Ingham is part of the right wing elite who have ideological and/or selfish reasons for denying climate change - that, or they are irredeemably stupid.

Either way they have no place in the pages of NCE.

  • Simon O’Hana,
  • Editor’s note: We chose to print Bernard Ingham’s views in full to offer insight into how opinion formers view the issue

Wanted: A face to promote engineering…

Your article exhorting the need to get more civil engineers and civil engineering projects on TV is a clear way forward to enhance the status of our profession (Cover story, last week).

It is uncomfortable seeing senior ICE members, terrified at the sight of a news camera, trying to explain an engineering situation. They are too formal, too political, use indecipherable technical sound bites and do nothing to promote engineering to the heart of society.

A single, professional communicator, not necessarily an engineer, should always front as many as possible TV productions featuring our profession. The public would start to recognise him/her as a personality and respect the views. Volunteers needed. One qualification: good charismatic communicator.

  • Mike Rayworth (F ret), The Steadings, Invercreran, Appin, Argyll PA38 4BJ

…capable of coping with a Jeremy Paxman

Engineers will not achieve the recognition many expect until the bulk of the population has some grasp of the complexity of work involved.

I believe there is plenty of latent interest in engineering - it just needs awakening.

We need high profile, ­intelligent engineers with presentational abilities being seen and heard in the media discussing the major infrastructure problems of the day. They need to be able to stand up to browbeating presenters and obfuscating politicians to put forward the pros and cons of projects, with the cost implications comprehensively and coherently presented.

Olympic Delivery Authority chairman Sir John Armitt is indeed the calibre of man required, but he can’t do everything alone.

A typical opportunity now exists in the wake of the storms and floods. The farmers of the Somerset Levels are appearing on TV opining that flooding problems can be solved by dredging and ditching. Surely as an institution our view needs to be heard? And from a senior figure, not the local drainage engineer. Similarly, there has been little, if any, engineering input into televised discussions about the High Speed 2 scheme, another current hot topic.

We hear from doctors, economists and the legal profession every day, but seldom engineers. The chances are that if a programme is dealing with a construction matter an architect will be called; roads/traffic matters will attract an AA spokesman.

After the tragic helicopter crash onto the Glasgow pub, and the inordinate length of time taken to extricate the deceased, the local firemen/police were the only views heard on the building’s structural stability.

The ICE must be proactive where its input is relevant, and become the first point of call for Jeremy Paxman et al.

  • John Williams (M), Ivy Cottage, Hankelow, Crewe CW3 0JA

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