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Orr Stars

David Orr takes over as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers next week. NCE finds out what's on his agenda.

Compared to recent Institution presidents, David Orr takes on the role during something of a quiet period. There are no major historical anniversaries to celebrate, no merger talks in the air, no controversial subscription rises planned.

Having just completed a tricky review of the ICE's governance, and more recently a review of the ICE's strategy and vision, Orr doesn't even have these trifles to worry about any more.

"I think that it is a great period for consolidation within the Institution," he explains looking ahead to his year in office. "We have just confirmed the forward strategy and we have a new vision – I think it is a very good opportunity to go out and celebrate what is the Institution."

Having been on Council since 1997 and a vice president for the last three years, Orr has been an integral part of the team behind recent ICE reforms. But now with the hard work done, he is intent on making the most of the period of relative calm.

His vision for the ICE is to see civil engineers at the very heart of society, delivering sustainable development though knowledge and skills. "That's what we are about as civil engineers – that's what we are about as an institution," he adds.

"These days we don't have so many towering individuals because we work in teams," he explains. "Civil engineers are very much unsung heroes and I want to focus on them and to turn them into people that are acclaimed by society."

Orr's style is very much the gentle persuader. As a Northern Irishman from Belfast he speaks in the kind of soft tones that demand attention, yet with a wit that melts the hardest of hearts. His warmth, charm, ability to find consensus, and outright passion for the profession, has won him many friends and much respect throughout the ICE.

And his civil service background has also contributed to his outstanding political (with a small p) and mediation skills. Orr is currently central procurement director for the Northern Ireland Government and before that was in charge of all roads and structures in the region with an annual spend of £225M and a £370M public private partnership deal to lever in extra cash and skills. The ability to balance the needs of the public with the desires of politicians in this part of the world can not be underestimated.

It is typical of the man perhaps that he credits his team for much of the success. And certainly he is very much a team player. While he talks about the profession from the heart and from personal experience, he is clear that even as president he simply represents a much larger force.

"I don't believe in the cult of the presidency but I do believe in the power," he says. "Not that many people in the UK know who David Orr is, but when I go to see members they don't go out to see me, they come to see the president – the focus of this great institution."

For this reason he is not interested in creating presidential legacies. "It's not about a president leaving a legacy it's about a president promoting this institution," he points out.

He is of course the second president from Belfast in just five years. Professor Adrian Long held the office from November 2003 and is largely credited for putting in place this "presidential team" concept to avoid a succession of pet projects distracting the ICE from the needs of its members.

Orr knows Long well, has huge respect for him and cannot resist pointing out – with a smile – that Long taught him as a student at Queens University.

He also has huge pride in the fact that Belfast has delivered two presidents in such a short period of time.

"Because Northern Ireland is a small place all the civil engineers seem to know each other and it's a really vibrant region," says Orr who has been very active in the region over the years as honorary secretary and Council representative. He was also regional chairman in 2003/4.

"They were delighted when Adrian became president but really thought that was it for another 150 years so they are equally excited about my presidency."

Orr noticeably plays down the impact that Northern Ireland's troubled past has had on his career and prefers to dwell on the positives.

"Northern Ireland is a very supportive place for civil engineers and maybe that has come about through the years of conflict," he says.

"Civil engineers are now playing a very strong role in setting aside those years of conflict. I pay tribute to the civil engineering industry of Northern Ireland which struggled through those difficult years but we have put that behind us and are looking forward to a very vibrant future."

The community is, he says, now comfortable with itself and the civil engineering industry is doing well with local firms increasingly being joined by other UK and multinational firms.

Clearly he has a huge amount of affection and passion for Belfast. A graduate of Queens University he joined the Roads Service in 1974 and, aside from brief stints studying abroad in Canada, Germany and Holland and working in Thailand during the 1980s, he has largely built his career and life around the region.

He now lives in the outskirts of Belfast with his wife Vyvienne, "a primary school teacher and long suffering and patient supporter of the ICE". His family makes up an important part of his life. Orr's son Colin is a software engineer based in Belfast and his daughter Sharon is a speech and language therapist in County Antrim.

"I'm a family person and I enjoy my family as well as walking and cycling," he says. "My favourite walk is the north coast of County Antrim from the Giants Causeway to Port Bollantray but I also enjoy cycling and will be bringing one of my bikes over to do a little bit of cycling around London."

Despite the demands of the teaching timetable, Vyvienne will be supporting Orr on as many of the UK presidential visits as possible.

Orr is now looking forward to welcoming the whole Council to Belfast for its December meeting and will then host a celebratory dinner for 900 engineers from all around the UK regions.

Regional ICE activity has always been very close to Orr's heart and as a vice president, he helped to steer the Institution through some momentous and quite turbulent decisions to devolve power to the regions.

"I'm a big fan of regionalisation," he says pointing out that in so many ways the policy shift has transformed the ICE, given real momentum and energy to the regional activity and boosted influence around the UK."

But he accepts that putting a regionalised support structure in place has been an expensive exercise.

"We had a 15% increase in subscriptions two years ago and a 9% increase last year and that was really to fund the revitalisation," he says. "We asked members to vote. They liked the pilot regionalisation so I think that we did consult members and got the go ahead. They will realise that we have been acting prudently and in their interests."

Orr emphasises the fact that having effective regional teams can boost ICE's influence with governments through proactive promotion. He points out that during his year in office he will be working hard to help maximise this influence.

Like many recent presidents, Orr will be combining his ICE role with his day job and he expects to devote around two and a half days a week to the ICE.

As a public sector client procurement will be large on Orr's radar, particularly the way which the industry interacts with and understands the needs of clients.

"Clients are the start and the end of the civil engineering cycle," he says. "The industry must understand the needs of clients and how clients think – it needs to be flexible and innovative in responding to clients' desires."

But he is also clear that clients understand the value of having civil engineers on their teams to ensure that projects are procured and delivered in the best way.

"As a client who is a civil engineer I think that I bring a great viewpoint on the procurement of civil engineering," he says.

"Unless you have people working for clients who understand the benefits of partnership working, you will have clients that are tempted to go down a lump sum route or load the risk onto contractors, which will only end in tears."

He points out that one of the biggest challenges for the modern public sector client is funding and highlights the public private partnership he created while with the Roads Service. This has underpinned maintenance of the M1 and the M2 motorways and the upgrade the Belfast to Dublin corridor and is one of the professional achievements he is most proud of.

"I also think that one of my achievements has been to win the argument for proper funding for (highway) maintenance," he adds.

"Delivering the money is another matter but the case has been accepted and there is now an acknowledgement that this is something that we must do."

Orr will also be doing his utmost to boost what he describes as "professionalism" within the ICE next year. He is concerned that members fulfil their obligations to maintain integrity, competence and professional development and understand the role that the Institution - "the circle of knowledge" - plays in underpinning these values.

Throughout his career Orr has also been supportive of initiatives to widen ICE membership. The recent changes in rules to help other professionals become part of the ICE were, he says, vital for the ICE's future.

"We are seen as having a gold standard in terms of our qualifications and it is important that we maintain that – if we lower it then people will be tempted to go elsewhere," he assures. "But we have got to make sure that that gold standard is available to the widest group possible."

Creation of the new chartered environmentalist title is also something that he has embraced and is proud to have alongside his ICE fellowship.

"I think that in the past the word environmentalist tended to be perceived as someone who is just interested in protecting the environment," he says. "We are reclaiming the title."

Orr is also keen to listen to the ICE's future and will continue the president's apprentice scheme started by Gordon Masterton two years ago and has six graduate engineers lined up to assist him over the year. He will be expecting and in fact demanding some very direct feedback.

"We have got six very confident young people and they will not be hiding behind the door," he adds. "I want to get a really honest and perceptive insight to the Institution and the role of the president – I want to listen to them and to take their advice on how to communicate with the young people in our profession."


ORR's Thoughts...

...on climate change
"If climate change develops as Nicholas Stern and the IPPC predicts then there is going to be significant re-engineering required. But I think that it is not only in mitigation that civil engineers have a very important role to play. First and foremost is the energy debate. We are a nation that is wedded to energy consumption and we are gong to have to have a debate over nuclear and ask why France is able to generate 87% of its electricity via nuclear in a carbon neutral way."

...on transport
"We are a nation that is wedded to transport Đ we like our cars. In the whole field of transport I really see civil engineers have a major role
to play. I'm for road pricing. Introducing some means of network
road user charging where it's variable by the time of day and by the congestion on the road is the fairest and best means to help people
value the privilege of driving a car."

...on nuclear power
"As president of the ICE I have to recognise that there is a wide range
of opinion within the membership. I can have my own personal view
but I'm not taking a position on it. Civil engineers are there to inform
the debate to come up with the solutions on the very valid issues of
safety, disposal, storage etc. We are having a national debate and if
that debate comes out in favour of nuclear, then civil engineers stand ready to provide the solutions."

...on tidal power
"Tidal power is great but we have to balance the benefits with the environmental issues that they bring. Given that we are dealing with
an issue of such strategic significance for the nation Đ how are we going
to provide a sustainable source of power Đ it may well be that we have
to balance the good things of tidal power with some adverse impacts
on the environment."

...on high-speed rail
I think that society needs to spend more on infrastructure. We have had great success with CTRL and bitten the bullet on Crossrail but we need to be tackling high speed rail elsewhere Đ we need to be linking Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cardiff with London using high speed rail. If you look at
the number of domestic flights to London then you see the market."

International Presidential visits
- January 2008: Cairo, Eygypt, Shanghai, China, Hong Kong for the IStructE centenary conference. Thailand.

- June 2008: Moscow and around Russia

- September 2008: Las Vegas, USA for the ICE conference for US country representatives

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