Former Scott Wilson chairman Geoff French takes up office as the 149th president of the ICE just as the economy starts to emerge from recession. Antony Oliver discusses his plans
to put the Institution at the heart of the nation’s growth agenda.
All the major political parties are now backing infrastructure as an essential element of economic development. With this in mind, incoming ICE President Geoff French is clear that the Institution must step up its efforts to depoliticise the whole decision making process for infrastructure planning.
The task, as he sees it, is to boost the work already started by the ICE to engage with decision makers and create clarity about the consequences of specific government policy choices.
“The ICE’s role is to be an independent body that gives impartial advice to decision makers, and it needs to do more of that,” he says, pointing to the huge value of its integrity and independence.
“The ICE’s job is to try to lift the argument above the day to day politics.”
Having spent over four decades crafting a global career in civil engineering and infrastructure planning, working his way from graduate to chairman of consultant Scott Wilson, French is very well placed to understand the way that infrastructure investment impacts economies and drives growth.
And he is also all too aware of the way that party politics, pet projects and poorly advised decision making can easily lead to bad projects, the wrong projects or no projects at all.
“Our links into government have never been better, but we need to keep driving that forward”
“Our links into government have never been better but we need to keep driving that forward,” he says. “We are swimming with the tide, as all the main political parties now realise that infrastructure is important. But we need to keep reinforcing that message.”
His insight comes from a career in transport infrastructure design and planning and from having worked for multiple clients and governments around the world. As such, he understands the need to tap into decision making networks to truly influence the decision making process.
French became an ICE vice president in 2008 with the remit to boost the Institution’s public voice and to switch to onto the notion that it can and must play a role in the decision making processes that determine public investment.
As such, his presidential year will continue this work and underline the need for the ICE to step up another gear.
“Communications will be a large part of what I do next year, but linked to engagement,” he says. “We have demonstrated that we are better at communications but it is actually doing something with that which is the important step.”
“We are swimming with the tide, as all the main political parties now realise that infrastructure is important. We need to keep reinforcing that message”
Progress is being made, he says. Following a great deal of investment, the ICE has become highly involved in the numerous infrastructure related initiatives around Westminster, such as Infrastructure UK, the National Infrastructure Plan and its Strategic Engagement Forum.
The recent award of an honorary ICE fellowship to infrastructure minister Paul Deighton, French says, underlines the importance of the ICE’s relationship with the decision makers.
“The first thing that we were trying to do was to make the ICE’s public voice louder. We can always do more, and not just in Westminster but in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast,” he explains, pointing out that plans are already in train to change this London-centric focus.
“This year, for example, [alongside usual presidential commitments in Scotland] there will be a reception in the Scottish Parliament hosted by the deputy leader of the Scottish National Party.”
Similar initiatives are planned across the UK.
Specifically, the ICE’s job is to help encourage decision-making by providing the analysis and reasons why politicians are right to support a particular scheme or why they should not.
As a past chairman of the Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE) and most recently president of the international consultants representative group Fidic, he is well used to making the case for investment and championing the role of engineers. However, the ICE President’s role is, he explains, very different.
“The ICE cannot lobby but it can promote a professional viewpoint,” he explains. “It is doing it well but it can do it better.”
French points out that it is easier for the ICE, as a collective of individual professionals, to come up with a professional view. It has a better chance of being seen as impartial compared to a grouping of companies lobbying for vested interest.
Only where the interests of big business coincide with the interests of the country should the ICE start to entertain the idea of anything resembling lobbying.
But French is very clear about the strong link between infrastructure investment and economic growth. Last year he travelled the world as president of Fidic, and in that time witnessed first hand, for example, how investment by China in its infrastructure had driven economic growth.
In contrast, he adds, India’s economy continues to struggle because it hasn’t invested to the same degree in transport, power, water and telecommunications.
Yet, when it comes to supporting or opposing specific schemes, French accepts that the ICE has to be careful not to step outside its role as a learned society. And with a project such as High Speed 2 (HS2) - one of the most controversial on the current roster - French explains that the ICE is supportive “of a concept rather than any specific scheme”.
“I find it hard to imagine a Britain of the future without an electrically powered, mass transport system between our cities,” he says, choosing his words carefully.
“HS2 may not be the best way to deliver that but it is the best plan that I have seen yet. We are in favour of HS2 because we are in favour of mass public transport that is electrically powered,” he says (see box).
There is little doubt that, with a national scheme of this scale, the ICE intends to make its professional viewpoint known, and so will be at the heart of the decision making process.
“We have demonstrated that we are better at communications, but it is actually doing something with that which is the important step”
However, while the ICE is doing well in starting to get links into central government, he is less convinced about the progress being made towards influencing and advising the devolved governments or in the regions.
In particular, he points to the changing regional politics landscape in which Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are increasingly becoming highly influential when it comes to driving infrastructure investment. And, as chairman of the Enterprise M3 LEP in Hampshire and Surrey, he has a very clear vantage point from which to comment.
“I think that the ICE is no different from most organisations in that it has been slow in seeing the change coming and slow in getting involved,” he explains. “LEPs are an attempt to try to get the public and private sectors singing from the same sheet,” he adds. “And over the next six years across the UK, LEPs will be passed £12bn to spend. A major chunk of it will go on things that we would recognise as infrastructure.”
French took over as chairman of the Enterprise M3 LEP in 2011 after stepping down from Scott Wilson, retiring from active consultancy after 43 years.
During his career, French progressed from graduate engineer to chairman, working on a huge number of UK and international transportation and planning projects.
In his early career, French worked around the world - in Botswana, China, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lesotho, Mauritius, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.
He then managed the transition of Scott Wilson from a relatively small UK player to one of the UK’s biggest global consultancies, before finally masterminding its sale to US giant URS (see box).
2012 senior vice president, ICE
2011 president, Fidic
2011 chair, enterprise M3 LEP
2009-11 vice president Fidic
2008-10 non executive chairman, Scott Wilson
2009 chairman, Association for Consultancy & Engineering
2008 vice president, ICE
2006-08 executive chairman, Scott Wilson
2005-09 executive committee, Fidic
2002-06 chairman, Scott Wilson
1995 MD, UK, Scott Wilson
1985-2010 partner and subsequently chairman, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick
1982-83 principal transportation planner, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick
1973-82 senior transportation planner, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick
1972-73 site engineer seconded to Sir Robert McAlpine & Sons
1968-72 engineer, Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick
1968 BSc(Eng), Southampton University
He and his wife Annie live in Newbury. They have two sons David and Michael, one daughter, Helen plus five grandchildren - none of whom have followed him into engineering.
Rugby was once his passion - “the nose tells you” - and in his younger days he played regularly for Old Meadonians in Chiswick and Plymouth Albion, until family life and physical limitations saw him retire from the field of play.
Today he spends his spare time enjoying travel in his semi-retirement - he still chairs two pension schemes as well as the LEP. He also makes regular trips to the theatre, most recently to see Othello at the National Theatre and admits that, while his music tastes have been heading more towards classical, he has “never really recovered from Freddie Mercury passing away”.
As was the case during his Fidic presidency, his wife Annie will be highly involved in his year in office at the ICE, providing support as he travels to see members across the UK and around the world.
His career has morphed from the technical towards the managerial end of the business, he explains, as his interest has grown around ensuring not only that projects are well delivered for clients, but that the right projects are chosen to be built. But he concludes that there are many routes to engineering career success.
“I always say to young engineers ‘choose the thing that seems less like hard work’,” he says. “Not because it will be necessarily easy, but because you will develop a niche. The great thing is that the thing that you enjoy the most and that seems least like hard work is usually the thing that you will put most effort into. And by doing that your career will flourish and so will your business.”
“I always say to young engineers ‘choose the thing that seems less like hard work’. Not because it will be necessarily easy but because you will develop a niche”
He admits that, like so many engineers, he was unsure initially what he wanted to do while at school, so migrated towards engineering because he was good at science and maths.
But, having looked at the options and thinking engineering was a good option, he opted for civil engineering as it seemed to embrace a much wider range of disciplines.
“One of the first overseas jobs I did was in Botswana - the capital was only around 20,000 people and they wanted to expand it,” he says. “It is now a place of 200,000 people and it is lovely to go back there now and see that it has expanded exactly along the lines that we planned. That gives a huge kick.”
His passion for sustainable design remains. The fact that the economic crash appears to have taken climate change off the agenda means that the world is now gambling when it comes to energy policies, he says.
“I was always taught never to gamble more than you can afford to lose,” he says. “But we are gambling the future of the planet and that isn’t something we can afford to lose.”
However, he also says that the challenges of management and running teams has been exciting, particularly his more recent work to lead a company through different stages of ownership.
UK’s world class engineers
“We need to encourage engineers to get more involved in management,” he says. “Too often engineers have restricted themselves to what they can do and that isn’t right. If we wish to have influence then we need to ensure that some engineers have that interface with government and with clients.”
That said, French is convinced that the engineers the UK produces are world class. The ICE, he adds, remains hugely relevant all around the world as a global standard and because it gives the opportunity and resources for individuals to develop their careers.
Encouraging and helping to bring more people into the Institution remains a priority, and tackling the routes and barriers to membership will be something that French says must be addressed by the ICE during his year in office.
“The ICE has consistently tightened its definition of a civil engineer, and I would like us to be slightly more broad minded”
One area to be addressed is the need to tackle the routes to membership which, he says, are still too prescriptive.
The ICE, he feels, must be more willing to be flexible than it has been in the past and to make it less difficult for appropriate professionals to become members.
“The ICE has consistently tightened its definition of a civil engineer, and I would like us to be slightly more broad minded,” he adds. “I would like us to have a healthy debate about this - if you look at the names on the walls around the ICE you have mechanical engineers and electrical engineers because at one stage they were all civil engineers. All we have done
as a profession is to compartmentalise ourselves more and more and we have lost clout as