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Municipals: shine at BCIA

Comment

What is going wrong with local government procurement, we ask this week. Well, we can talk about political pressure, over-ambitious aspirations, bad management, and lack of skills, but ultimately it always comes down to one thing - poor leadership.

So, when it comes to local authority procurement, we should certainly bemoan the demise of the municipal engineer.

Whether in the public or private sector, when things go wrong we will always find the lack of strong leadership, leading to poor communication and team failure. The wrong people will have been left in charge of critical parts of the project. Individuals will have been left to deal with responsibilities they have no experience of or expertise in.

It is vital therefore that we boost our profession's infl uence inside local authorities and expose the fact that without engineering expertise, councils cannot manage infrastructure.

It is perhaps peculiar that modern local government seems to put engineering expertise so far down its list of priorities.

But this clearly accentuates the chances of municipal project teams failing and infrastructure projects running adrift.

In all the projects we highlight this week there does not appear to have been sufficient engineering expertise driving the teams and projects. Instead short-term political pressures and passions have been allowed to override technical logic.

Certainly times have changed since the all-powerful county surveyor controlled vast budgets to spend on transport, water, waste, power and planning.

Privatisation has dispersed accountability. Cost control and redefi ed priorities have reduced the amount spent by authorities on infrastructure.

Outsourcing has altered and shifted responsibilities.

But pressure on public spending means the need for good engineering and good project management within the public sector has never been greater. Whether devising radical procurement and infrastructure management programmes, sweating assets, introducing sustainable recycling policies or simply keeping the streets tidy, the local authority engineer plays a vital public role.

The public engineer deserves a bigger voice, more influence and greater reward.

But it is not all bad news. This week sees the launch of the 2005 British Construction Industry Awards (BCIA). I hope we will again see a huge number of successful projects put forward, among them a large proportion of local authority-led schemes.

Last year we introduced a Local Authority Award specifically to highlight the successes coming out of councils. This award will again sit alongside the Prime Minister's Award for Better Public Building to cele ate the effective use of public money. In 2004 neither was short of entries: I expect this year to be no different.

The judging process last year proved that it is possible for local authorities to assemble the right teams to successfully commission, manage and construct infrastructure projects.

Worthy winners were found.

They highlighted that for local authority projects to be successful the right team had to be assembled, properly led and encouraged. For this to happen, engineering expertise had to be placed in the centre of the process, preferably in the lead.

It is crucial that local authorities learn from the high profile mistakes around them. But equally they must learn from the successes - the BCIA is always a great place to find these.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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