Measures in the recent roads review and proposals in the Transport White Paper signal an increased role for the engineer working in local government. Thousands of miles of roads are to be
de-trunked and handed over to local authority control, and local or regional authorities are to be given a greater role in deciding the future of new road schemes. Road safety schemes, the provision of safe routes to schools, and the reduction of traffic congestion in town centres, all central to the Government's transport policy, will be the responsibility of the municipal engineer.
After more than a decade of seeing their role in the community whittled away, a degree of power and responsibility is being handed back to local government and the municipal engineer will be central to these new policies. 'Civil engineers play the major role in enhancing both the natural and the built environments, adding to the quality of life', according to David Hodgkinson, current chairman of the Association of Municipal Engineers.
Pat Ryan, borough engineer for Ipswich is quick to underline this statement, pointing to the wide variety of schemes with which his department is currently involved. They include a £100, 000 scheme for the upgrading of the area between the town centre and Ipswich's wet dock; co-ordination with Anglian Water's £30M scheme for improving its services in the area, supervision of cable installations, major developments on the airfield, a partnership development at Ipswich Maltings, increased park and ride facilities, improvement to transport systems in the town. All this in addition to his department's regular maintenance work.
A quick trawl through the appointments pages of New Civil Engineer gives a further flavour of the huge variety of work which the municipal engineer might expect to be involved with. Transportation strategy; operations management; coastal engineering; highway planning and regulation; structures assessment are just some of the specialities sought by local authorities in a single issue.
Ryan is also quick to emphasise the high level of training that a young engineer entering the profession can expect from a local authority. 'The basic training is very good, properly structured and taken very seriously,' he says. John Bircumshaw, the incoming chairman of the AME is in complete agreement with Ryan: 'You learn all the things you need to get a job done. It's a good rounded training'.
Bircumshaw also points to a further, invaluable part of the municipal engineer's experience. 'You learn to find your way around the system, dealing with all aspects of the project from start to finish.' This could mean anything from dealing with the planning department to holding public meetings, appointing subcontractors, project management - the whole experience.
Bircumshaw is convinced that the experience he gained in local government, dealing personally with all the parties affected by a project proved to be invaluable later in his career when working with a major utility. And it can hardly be denied that municipal engineers have a closer relationship with their client than in any other branch of the profession. After all they and their families are likely to be among the regular users of the traffic scheme or the crossing they have designed and supervised.
Management skills are an important part of the municipal engineer's portfolio, says Ryan, whose young engineers are given responsibility at an early stage in their careers which, he points out 'opens the opportunities to promotion', either with their own, or another authority. And nowadays the municipal engineer will have to deal with a growing spectrum of interests which will include not only local politicians and the individuals who may or may not have voted them into power, but increasingly with private developers. This is likely to require the development of a range of skills not usually included in any engineering degree course, but which will certainly find a use in daily life.
Hodgkinson describes the municipal engineer as being at 'the interface of public need and political decision making' a position which undoubtedly provides the interested observer with an unparalleled view of how the system works.
In recent years local authorities have had to cope with successive waves of compulsory competitive tendering, local government reorganisation and internal restructuring. But despite this dispiriting onslaught, many of them have kept their heads down and quietly got on with the installation of some innovative schemes, and equally innovative methods of financing them. The opportunities are infinite, says Hodgkinson: 'There is always a better way of doing what has been done before'.
To take only a few schemes in a single field, that of transport, EU funding has provided Birmingham with the largest SCOOT traffic control system in Europe; Southampton's ROMANSE project is at the forefront of technology as is the TABASCO scheme in Scotland. Ipswich was the first authority to install a guided bus system and the Sheffield and Croydon trams have made the national news pages. All these pioneering projects have involved the relevant local authority engineering departments and the experience gained by the engineers working on them must have been invaluable.
But if sorting out local traffic problems seems to be less glamorous than building a major suspension bridge or the Millennium Dome, it certainly has at least as much social worth and is considerably more direct. And, it is worth bearing in mind that in their day to day work, as NCE's Will Howie has written, 'the municipal engineer has one of the most daunting tasks of the present day: how to make the modern city function in all its complexity'.
How municipal engineers solve even a small part of that riddle will directly affect the entire local community, and even those living further afield. Most of us have a vision of how we wish to live our lives in the village, town or city which we inhabit and it is the municipal engineer above all others in the engineering profession who helps to turn that vision into reality.