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Letters: In an unfair world, what is the price to be paid for work?

The main point:


How much should you be paying?

Whilst agreeing with the sentiments in your comment article on stamping out corruption (Comment last week) you have over simplified it as is usual for journalists.

The reason companies undertake such practice is because the world is not fair, not because they are greedy. Contractors work on 2% or 3% margin for enormous risk and provide a service. Bankers and MPs, meanwhile, charge extraordinary fees and do a disservice to the community and the world.

In the developing world many in-house country agencies have a legal right to take a percentage of any equipment supplied to an infrastructure project and hence they politically persuade this to be specified their way.

The process of submitting a bid and supplying a tender bond often costs up to six different international contractors £2M each. You can add another £1M to the costs for redesigning to the in-house specification. As a result each losing company has to put a minimum of £3M on the next bid to compensate for the loss and so on.

The solution is, starting with the UK, for all tenders to be paid for.

I had an interesting discussion recently with a local government official who boldly stated that supermarkets and developers have to pay a premium for planning approvals for new swimming pools, sports centres etc. He proudly declared that the public won!

I advised that it was the same as contractors bribing because the cost has to be passed on and we all pay for his planning gains by a mark-up on our food.

  • Peter Proctor (M),

David Noakes recommends asking contractors if they wish to be put on a select list for tendering (Letters last week). I would have thought that that should always be standard procedure.

He goes on to say that he always warns that no bid or a duff bid would result in their name being removed in future. I imagine that that is precisely the reason why the practice of so-called cover pricing came into being in the first place.

I suggest that the solution to the problem is for it to be normal practice for a tenderer to be able to decline to submit a tender, if their circumstances have changed since they originally agreed to tender.

Obviously the tenderer should be required to notify the client at the earliest possible opportunity so that alternative arrangements can be made, if necessary.

Elsewhere in NCE, there was criticism of early estimates of construction costs, which are all too often found to be unrealistic. I believe that if all civil engineers were required to have a minimum period of, say, six months working in a contractor’s estimating department before they become fully qualified, there would be great benefits to the profession, and to clients.

  • Robin Osborn (F), Pullens Gate, Pullens Lane, Headington Hill, Oxford OX3 0BX


Asleep on the job?

Logistics challenge

Worker cuts through an unsupported sleeper

I hope the chap on page 24 (‘Highland rejig’, last week) was not going to cut right through that sleeper.

Otherwise he was heading for a nasty shock when the short piece collapsed inwards.

Maybe he was posing for the camera and would normally have the workpiece properly supported.

  • Philip Schnepp (M),


Act now or pay later

I was interested to receive an invitation to an ICE event on the Isle of Wight in November to hear what some of the “UK’s leading experts” say we need to do about climate change. However, I was dismayed to read the programme.

Predictably, it starts by sharing how much action that climate science predicts is necessary and the need to adapt. But it then jumps to the far-off possibilities of geo-engineering.

The irony is that without action now, including by engineers, the flood defences will flood. The melting of Greenland, glaciers and Antarctica will cause sea levels to rise by 20m.

Surely our priority, in the run up to the Copenhagen Climate Summit, should be to use conferences such as this to set out how we, the engineering profession, plan to reduce our own climate emissions now?

As an engineer I am not prepared to invest false hope in the science fiction of giant mirrors in space. Our profession should instead devote its time to inspire and implement a zero carbon future now, as well as showing how we will reduce our own impact.

  • Jonathan Essex (M), ICE Environment and Sustainability Panel, 39 Common Road, Redhill, RH1 6HG

Stopping at all stations

In your article about distances being the key to the choice of destinations for high-speed (HS) rail routes (NCE 17 September) the problem highlighted was that most British cities are closer together than the 160km considered to be the minimum practicable.

This drawback can easily be circumvented by timetabling successive trains to stop at alternating destinations, with a bias towards those serving the higher population centres.

Given the distribution of the major centres as identified in your article, the best basic network would probably be:

  • HS2: London to Birmingham to Manchester (with Liverpool spur) to Leeds to Newcastle to Edinburgh to Glasgow
  • HS3: London to Bristol to Cardiff
  • HS4: Bristol to Birmingham to Nottingham to Sheffield to Leeds.

The 750km routes from London or Cardiff to Edinburgh/Glasgow would comfortably accommodate three intermediate stops at intervals generally in excess of 160km.

  • Peter Hepworth,

Low bids or no bids?

I’m not sure that Charles Stanley analyst Geoff Allum in your article Another year of recession (NCE 24 September) is right to say that highly competitive pricing is the pragmatic solution for consultants trying to keep their companies in good health while they wait for the economic upturn.

Most of us are struggling to cover our overheads with a reduced workload as it is and the majority will have already gone through the painful process of shedding all but essential staff.

Bidding even lower prices against each other may maintain turnover for some firms in the very short term but will only lead to many companies ultimately going bust or consultants failing to allocate the resources required to deliver an adequate service to clients. What is good or healthy about either of these outcomes?

  • Alan Pemberton, director, PRC Engineering, 32 Victoria Road, Surbiton, Surrey KT6 4JT

Widening the load

I read with interest your Managed Motorways supplement (NCE 24 September) and certainly welcome the prospect of “improved journey time reliability on the motorway network” envisaged by Highways Agency network operations director Derek Turner.

But a nagging doubt remains. The improved system depends in part on hard shoulder running, which the Agency’s chief highways engineer Ginny Clarke describes as “an alternative to motorway widening”.

That looks fine in the short term, and the Agency expects to obtain extra capacity at much reduced cost. But what happens in the longer term?

When motorways have been widened in the past a vacant hard shoulder has been very useful in minimising traffic delays during the construction period. But once a hard shoulder is being used regularly for traffic running that option may be ruled out, because it would then lead inevitably to much greater congestion.

With the population of this country increasing apparently inexorably it would be useful to know if the Agency has up its sleeve a long-term plan for eventual motorway widening without use of the hard shoulder.

Or will the capacity of these motorways then reach a limit, with no realistic prospect of increase?

  • E W Flaxman, The Old School, Cottisford,

Trolley love

I agree with Phil Jones (NCE 17 September) that the way forward in transport for this country is to follow the lead of New Zealand and some European countries in the use of trolleybuses.

I am old enough to remember trolleybuses in many of our northern towns, also trams in many others.

The provision of tram rails through city streets is to be deplored, a constant danger to other road users, expensive to lay and maintain. Whereas the trolleybuses, even in the 1940s were quick and quiet. With all the improvements to the modern trolleybuses this must be the overall winner in comfort, speed, quiet running, safety and overall cost.

  • S Hugh Foulstone (M),

Planning waste

It is good to read that the Cory Environmental energy from waste facility is now in construction in Belvedere after many years of planning delays (NCE 3 September). But I would like to correct your article’s comment that a number of energy from waste (EfW) plants are in the planning stages up and down the country.

My company has recently commissioned the first 40,000t per annum (tpa) of capacity for the Scotgen (Dumfries) EfW plant.

The advanced thermal treatment gasification technology will convert commercial and industrial wastes together with residual municipal waste from a nearby mechanical biological treatment facility, converting it into electricity and diverting thousands of tonnes from landfill.

On completion of the full 60,000tpa of capacity, the plant will also be a ready source for high-quality hot water and steam, further improving the efficiency.

We have also recently committed to providing gasification and civil engineering services to a series of sustainable resource parks announced by SITA and Cyclamax which are in various planning stages.

These will reduce the environmental impact of waste management and fossil fuel power production through recycling and generating renewable energy from non-recyclable waste.

  • Peter Warters, marketing and development director, Ascot Environmental, Ascot House, 51 Water Street, Radcliffe, Manchester M26 3DE

Your views & opinion

NCE welcomes letters from readers. We attempt to print as many as possible, which means letters longer than 200 words are likely to be condensed.

The Editor, NCE,
1st Floor, Greater
London House,
Hampstead Road,
London NW1 7EJ

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