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Politics - Highway snobbery

Local government - The integrity of the local highways engineer has been questioned.Ian Lawrence asks whether this is inevitable following the profession's loss of influence at county hall.

Controversial comments from a senior politician recently portrayed highways engineers as cardigan-wearing lackeys of elected members, prepared to compromise their objectivity by slanting reports to placate influential councillors.

Murmurs of dissent from a largely local government audience greeted London Assembly member Brian Coleman's assertions at a roads conference last month (NCE 4 November).

Coleman suggested that officers habitually use one set of evidence to produce one recommendation for one administration, but use different data to compile reports for succeeding politicians who have different agendas to push.

Few officers would admit to such blatant tactics and Alastair Jefford, president of local government body CSS, described it as 'an extreme view'.

But most highways officers would agree that their working environment has altered significantly over recent years.

Former chairman of the ICE's Municipal Engineering Board John Sanders argues: 'If the question asked was 'do you think your professional integrity was being increasingly compromised?', then I think the answer would be yes.

'I think this is touching the tip of a very significant iceberg.

At the end of the day you are employed by your local council to provide the best professional advice but there's no point doing it if that advice is going to be ignored.

'The fear is that over time will that professional advice become irrelevant?' he asked Certainly the days of the county surveyor wielding enormous clout is over - Hampshire County Council was the last to lose its County Surveyor last January - and the rise of substantial corporate departments in which transport is only one element has contributed to a decline in engineers' influence.

From a position of significant power, reporting directly to the chief executive, highways engineers are often now restricted to a lower level in the county hall hierarchy. And the number of council chief executives from an engineering background is in single figures nationwide.

Does this mean engineers are more vulnerable to being leant on to offer more subjective advice?

Local authorities director of consultant Atkins' highways and transportation division, David Robinson, thinks so. 'With the reduction in influence and people coming further down the line it's difficult for people to be more strong-minded in their advice.

It might not be a career-advancing move.

'County surveyors used to have a very powerful position and could give unbiased advice to any party.

The head of transport doesn't have that same status now. That makes it more difficult for engineers to influence policy.

'If officers are further down the line it might be seen like that because it's quite difficult for a more junior officer to stand up to a very senior politician, ' he says.

Portsmouth City Council's assistant city engineer Jim Comport says that earlier in his career he was asked to rewrite reports to suit political whims, but refused to put his name to versions diametrically opposed to his professional view.

He accepts that 'he who pays the piper calls the tune' to an extent, but also thinks there is room for engineers to stick by their principles.

'Some people will try to browbeat officers. It happens every day of the week in local government. If public opinion is driving a compromise then you have to see it from a political point of view.

'In the short-term you can suffer. I wasn't flavour of the month for quite a while but if you establish a reputation for having some integrity then you have more credibility as an officer than a yes man.

'There are times when you have to say what they need to know not what they want to hear.'

But changes in the style of local government with the introduction of cabinet government at the start of the decade are also adding pressure, adds Robinson.

Under the previous committee structure, all elected members could have an input to the debate with an obvious and transparent mechanism for arriving at decisions. But now greater power is concentrated in fewer hands, with decisions made by a cabinet typically consisting of around seven members.

'The cabinet system has led to much more politicisation of transport decisions, ' says Robinson.

'I think sometimes politicians will see technical advice which is founded on an objective analysis of a problem as having a political shade to it because it doesn't deal with the issues they meet on the street.

'I'm not sure that we as engineers handle these subjective issues as well as other professions do.'

Government guidance for the latest round of Local Transport Plans indicates a widely held belief that transport should be seen as a means to achieving other goals, like social inclusion, rather than as a goal in itself.

Robinson adds that this altered perception should force engineers to adopt a mix of objective and subjective values in their work.

'Politicians set the policy, that's what they are there for, but I wonder if as a profession we haven't been as able to handle the softer issues around transportation, ' he says.

Mike Kendrick, a past president of both the CSS and the Institution of Highways and Transportation, expresses a similar view.

'It might have been said in the past that highways engineers didn't have enough political sensitivity. They have been accused of not being able to see the bigger picture and tend to be very focused on the highways situation without seeing how it connects to other areas.

'But there's a difference between coming under political influence and seeing the bigger picture.

'We aren't always perceived to be sophisticated enough for the top jobs. Many politicians think that if you are doing a sound professional job then you can't get hold of the bigger picture.

'The only way forward for highways engineers is to embrace totally the corporate and political culture, understand it, live it and breathe it.

'That's the way to advancement these days and it is achievable.

I don't think professional integrity and embracing the bigger picture are mutually exclusive at all.'

Opportunities for highways engineers to play a more significant part in local government could be opening up again, according to ICE Municipal Engineering Board chairman Doug Pigg.

He says issues surrounding the streetscene are heading further and further up councils' agendas.

This means even more attention will need to be paid to the softer side of the job, but this could lead to transport departments regaining a measure of influence.

Pigg says: 'Highways engineers should think of themselves as highways managers. There's a big difference there. There's a lot of research that shows that the street is very near the top of everyone's priorities.

'In point of fact the highways manager's influence is growing.

It's not just about blacktop, pathways and kerbs. It's about the whole ambience of the street.

'The whole culture of local democracy is more complex and highways managers or engineers must realise that it's about much more than just the technical job.

'The problem with a lot of these things is that you've got to be much more aware of what's going on and be aware of your council's policies. That's the way you get influence and funding.

'Somebody has to manage the street - and who better than a municipal engineer?'

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