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Letters: Pay up and play the game of collaboration and profit

collaboration

Having started a subcontracting business, we can relate to Martin Blower’s article on fair payment (NCE 10 July).

It is an eye-opener being on the other side of the fence and we are horrified how the supply chain is treated by the master-servant relationship with principal contractors, which is bizarre as ultimately the supply chain create the ingenuity and value engineered solutions for which principal contractors claim credit.

Our experience of collaboration is that it begins and ends with the client and principal contractor - the supply chain is not invited to the party.

The Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail talk about making huge efficiencies in the next five years, yet the only way these are to be realised is to collaborate early in the project life cycle with the full supply chain, in recognition that the dynamic suppliers are instrumental in driving efficiencies and not the lethargic goliath principal contractors.

Clients are naïve in their belief that their principal contractors work in partnership with the supply chain and for too long principal contractors are all too willing to take supply chain ideas to win tenders and deliver efficiently, recognising this in their own financial reporting of project performance, but not wanting to reciprocate with the supply chain in recognition/payment, instead expecting this as a free service.

While principal contractors behave in this way and clients don’t recognise the problem, there is a huge reservoir of untapped knowledge, experience and inspiration that would provide a welcome industry step change, but until this recognition is shown, there is no incentive for the supply chain to be forthcoming.

Is there any principal contractor out there that truly wishes to collaborate? Because we are unable to find one.

● Alex McDermott (M), Nationwide - Rail Division, alex.mcdermott@nationwiderail.co.uk

I read with considerable interest and anticipation the Viewpoint article (NCE 24 to 31 July) by Elspeth Finch.

My interest waned towards the end largely because in the 500 or so words within the article never once was the word “profit” used.

Why are we so scared of using this word?

Why is it that so many so-called learned people see no reason to even mention it, let alone attribute good business logic to the creation of it.

As you know I’m a great believer in gender equality and I am fully supportive of your campaign, however I also think we should mount a similar campaign to enlighten engineers about the need to create profitable businesses.

I’m a director of one of the most innovative companies within construction, Roger Bullivant Ltd (RBL).

Many of your readers will have benefitted from the many innovative systems created under that brand.

Boosting efficiency? Yes, tick. Better risk management? Yes, tick. Matching the evolving needs of the customer? Yes, tick.

However, within RBL we test ideas, innovations, improvements with only three basic questions: Does it improve safety? Does it create additional profit? Will it create growth for our business?

If it ticks one or more of those boxes it is moved forward; if it doesn’t it’s consigned to the “great idea but not beneficial” box.

There aren’t many businesses anywhere that are a charity, so let’s start talking about profit and start using the “P” word more regularly.

Maybe then clients will recognise that construction companies’ profits are just as justified as, say, pharmaceutical companies’ profits, and the desire by some to screw contractors to the floor may abate.

  • John Patch, director, Roger Bullivant Ltd, Walton Road, Drakelow, Burton on Trent DE15 9UA


Put an end to smirks and raised eyebrows

I am happy to read such intuitive comments from Graham Reid of Hyder, stating that issues around gender equality arise when “…men cannot often see the strengths in women” (NCE 24 July).

This comment really hits home for me in both domestically and professionally, as a graduate ­structural engineer working in highways.

As a feminist, I struggle to accept certain attitudes towards my sex in this industry, however many of my female colleagues have believed that career success is in the tolerance of this behaviour.

At work I overhear male colleagues, many senior engineers, speaking about women using blatant vulgarity and innuendo, often around their silent female team members.

When I announce my displeasure of such topics being openly discussed in the office, there are raised eyebrows and knowing smirks signalling that the feminist has spoken up. In an environment that finds women as a minority, this type of behaviour is emotionally threatening, disempowering and, more worryingly, carried out on purpose.

Senior male staff must set the example for the young and upcoming engineers if they are to be the ones seeking graduates and students to join the workforce; this includes construction departments and subcontractors.

Those who do not adhere to the idea of equality must be shown the door as suggested by the Australian lieutenant general David Morrison in last years’ explicit email scandal where ranks were entirely irrelevant when it came to intolerance of their behaviour.

  • Selina Edwards, selinalee86@btinternet.com

What clients think about consolidation

One had to smile at reading your headline “Engineering will never be the same again”, when referring to the Aecom acquisition of URS (Comment, last week). I remember the last declared “seismic” shift in the industry when vertical integration took hold with the purchase of Parsons Brinckerhoff by Balfour Beatty.

I noted at the time that such moves would not catch on, as they created a solution for a problem that did not really exist.

This of course did not stop the headless chicken brigade predicting that the world of consulting was close to an end, as the headlines in the trade press went into overdrive.

So, as they say, “that went well” and now we move on to industry consolidation - a natural process at the back end of a recession.

And I again fail to see how the world of engineering is to be changed for ever, as Mark Hansford suggests.

In the end it is all about what the client wants, and nothing else, and it’s rare to hear a client ask for an industry consolidation of this scale.

  • Richard Williams (F), richard.williams@mottmac.com

Crossrail’s missing link at Heathrow

The progress on Crossrail reported in last month’s NCE supplement is indeed impressive.

What a pity that Crossrail will not directly serve Heathrow’s flagship hub Terminal 5.

Many passengers from Terminal 5 to central London will prefer to change onto Crossrail at Terminal 123, rather than pay the Heathrow Express fare to Paddington, but then have to change platforms at Paddington.

Would it not be better to have a more frequent combined Crossrail/Heathrow Express semi-fast service to and from Terminal 5 from the outset? In due course this can include a stop at Old Oak Common, and be extended to any new Terminal 6.

In the meantime, maps such as the one on page 31 of the NCE supplement should show Heathrow T123/T4 and not just Heathrow.

  • Peter Mynors (F), peter@mynors.me.uk

High Speed 2 is no more than a relief line

I do wish people would stop talking about High Speed 2.

What is being proposed was first mooted 50 years ago - a relief line to ease conditions on existing lines from London to the North, equivalent to a bypass around any city to ease congested conditions within the existing built up area.

Such new roads are built with restricted access points to enable smooth and economical flow of through traffic, so this new line will be built in a manner to ensure smooth economical travel for longer distance trains.

Unfortunately, politicians and senior civil servants tend to react only when a project is given a glamorous name, such is the weakness of human nature.

So let us remember we are going to build a line to relieve congestion.

  • Geoff Longlands,hglonglands@tiscali.co.uk

Why the ORR is good on safety, not business

Neil Raw’s letter (NCE 24 July) commenting on the article by the Office of Rail Regulation’s (ORR) Alan Price the previous week, raises an interesting question about ORR’s effectiveness as an economic regulator - not to be confused with its excellent safety regulation function.

Unlike other regulated service providers - such as water and telecoms - Network Rail is in effect a publicly funded organisation receiving its budget from the government for each five-yearly control period following the ORR’s periodic review.

As a consequence, any economic fines or penalties levied by the ORR in holding Network Rail to account against its licence conditions simply come from the publicly allocated funds.

Penalties levied by other regulators such as Ofcom and Ofwat have the ability to hit profits - and ultimately share values and dividends - but more importantly, management bonuses, which concentrates the minds.

The best the ORR can do is to write strongly worded letters of disapproval to Network Rail about directors’ remuneration, which so far have largely gone unheeded.

  • Nicolas Philipps, nicolas_philipps@aol.co.uk

Past is full of lessons on how to run roads

With regard to the articles and comment on the highway maintenance backlog (NCE 10 July), there is sadly little materials technical expertise left with the highway authorities themselves.

Long gone are the [county surveyors’ body] CSS technical committees. All we hear about is terrible weather and a lack of money. These things were just as common in the 1970s and 1980s as now. Our direct inspection and supervision and the keeping of good records, including materials test results, backed by our materials engineer, provided a very effective asset management plan.

The Highways Agency’s insistence on proprietary negative textured thin surfacing materials has led to many problems, with many local authorities having followed suit and abandoned surface dressing and traditional surfacing materials, leading to the present dire state nationally. I do hear that the Highways Agency is now looking to recruit a significant number of staff with technical expertise, having recognised this weakness in their organisation.

As to raising funds, it’s not the number of cars on our roads that cause structural damage but HGVs.

What a pity that the Transport Select Committee failed to pick up on these facts. Come on you technically knowledgeable engineers and let’s hear what you have to say.

  • Frank Bedford (M retd), frank.bedford@ntlworld.com

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