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Ten years on – and I still believe in the future of UK civils

This week’s issue represents a personal milestone. Unbelievably (to me) it’s a decade since I took over as editor of NCE.

Of course I had to look nostalgically back at that issue of August 2000 to remind myself of what was happening then. I sort of wish I hadn’t.

The first thing that leapt out at me was the 22 pages of recruitment advertising crammed into the back of the magazine - a longstanding barometer of the market’s health. UK civil engineering was certainly booming back then.

With New Labour well into its stride, public spending on rail, roads and so-called integrated transport projects was building and with it the industry’s confidence and fortunes.

Projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link section Two were getting into swing, contractors’ profits were doubling year on year and UK firms were shunning “high risk” overseas activity for the security of home.

Fears of skill shortage and over-heated markets were, perhaps predictably, the order of the day. Back then I was writing about the “excitement” of working on “inspirational projects around the globe” and the need to continue to attract the best talent - male and female - into the industry.

Ten years on much has certainly changed. We still, of course, need to boost the pay, conditions and career prospects of young people entering the profession but today the difficulty is too little work for this talent to get stuck into.

“I am optimistic – there are still so many huge opportunities and challenges for the profession to get stuck into”

And with the inevitable public sector cuts looming in October’s Comprehensive Spending Review, it is hard to feel anything but dismay at the position we now find ourselves.

While projects such as Crossrail and the London Tideway Tunnels, the nuclear new build programme and the on-going battle to upgrade our water and rail infrastructure certainly plough on, for many the next few years will be about survival. Gloomy stuff for sure, but after ten years you surely wouldn’t expect me to be anything other than moderately optimistic about our future fortunes?

Because optimistic I am - there are still so many huge opportunities and challenges for the profession to get stuck into.

Yes, life as we knew it will change. Yes, the levels of public investment available for infrastructure will probably never return to those seen over the last decade. But this country – and others all around the globe – will still need decent modern infrastructure to drive a sustainable future.

That means that without question there will be a huge amount for civil engineers to do. And to survive we must also change.

Ten years ago, as the market boomed I said “there is an opportunity for the profession to take a lead role in shaping our society”. The economic position may have altered but today and in the decade ahead, the sentiment still stands.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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