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Not so simple

ON THE face of it, the proposed merger between the Association of Consulting Engineers and the British Consultants Bureau has a lot going for it (see News). The resulting Association of British Consultants will benefit from the BCB's international profile and breadth of membership, as well as the ACE's resources and efficiency as a lobbying organisation. The large engineering practices will not have to shell out two subscriptions - something many would not have put up with for much longer.

For these reasons, it is also easy to see why the both the ACE and BCB secretariats would want the deal - a vital factor as those who recall the lengthy infighting between the Building Employers Confederation and the Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors will know.

But in the ABC's case a little caution may not go amiss. A merged ACE/BCB could have a worrying lack of focus. Membership would stretch from management consultants to the engineering arms of county councils; from firms with thousands of employees to those with one; and from consultants with operations and clients throughout the world to in-house organisations operating in a single UK region. If the engineers dominate the body, the creation of the ABC would have been a waste of time. However, if non-engineering firms hold sway, the civils sector would no longer have a dedicated corporate voice (as opposed to the professional one provided by the ICE). And, how will the informal, networking style of the BCB work alongside the conventional trade association culture of the ACE?

Perhaps the answer lies in the model created by the Construction Confederation and, to an extent, the Construction Industry Council - to which the ACE already belongs. Although this option has apparently been explored and rejected, it may be worth noting that both the CC and CIC achieved practical results with minimal overarching structure.

The advantage under this model is that interest groups - small firms, big firms, those operating internationally and in various disciplines and market sectors - could be given their own mini-organisations under the ABC umbrella. These groups could operate more or less autonomously, coming together as the ABC when an issue required clout at the highest possible level.

One further problem remains. If the much touted merger between WS Atkins and management contractor Bovis establishes a trend, will we begin to see a clamour for integration between the CC and the ABC. Who knows where it could all end?

If the merger goes through there should be no job losses on the scale that preceded the creation of the Construction Confederation and therefore little of the foot dragging that made that process so tortuous.

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