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Engineers with attitude

John Laverty

How our industry can make a difference.

Budget cuts and the new localism agenda will undoubtedly have a major impact on infrastructure investment,
with regional agencies swept aside in favour of local authorities.

ICE, along with other construction industry bodies, is working hard to understand the new environment and to engage with government on how to address the country’s problems.

ICE vision

And we are being heard. Business Secretary Vince Cable commented at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference last weekend that “ICE clearly has a vision of what needs doing in the field of infrastructure.”
And Eric Pickles, Communities and Local Government secretary, has promised to meet with built environment bodies to discuss concerns about planning and investment at the ‘larger than local’ scale.

In South East England, a localism workshop last week brought together civil engineers working in a variety of posts in local and regional government and industry. Two conclusions emerged from the discussions - one expected and one somewhat unexpected.

The first concerns infrastructure projects at the ‘larger than local’ scale, where a combination of parochialism, nimbyism and budget pressures could kill off sub-regional schemes that are needed to sustain local economies and jobs. Would projects such as the A3 Hindhead Tunnel or rail improvements for freight from the port of Southampton be backed today?

While engineers and planners can see the risks, we need to understand how politicians and civil servants see the situation. I recall debating congestion on the South East’s transport networks with a leading economist, who took the view that the misery of congestion was the way the economy got the balance of investment right.

Engineers want to make things work, but not all decision makers see the world that way!

Personal responsibility

The philosophy of localism is underpinned by personal responsibility - acceptance that there will be consequences if local government makes the wrong decisions.

The risk is the five to 10 year time-scale for this experiment and the long-term damage it might do to the UK’s prosperity. We need to get this message to government at all levels.

The workshop’s second conclusion was the importance of personal responsibility. Around the table, engineers cited examples where they personally had made the effort to educate their elected members on infrastructure issues, or had taken on new technical challenges because there was no one else able or willing to do so.

Frustration motivated some to stand in their local elections. It underlined that engineers can make a major contribution by developing new ideas for delivering the infrastructure and services for which they have professional responsibility.

This is not a naïve exhortation to do more for less. It simply affirms that we can make a difference. So let’s argue the case for practical infrastructure solutions both at an Institutional level and as individuals in our working lives.

  • John Laverty is ICE South East England’s regiional director

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