When you are an organisation over 120 years old – albeit with an illustrious history – it can be very hard to carve yourselves a space in the modern world. But the County Surveyor's Society (CSS) – founded in 1885 - is intent on making sure it does just that.
"We want to be seen as a leading strategic body for the built and natural environment", says current County Surveyor's Society president, Richard Wills who is also director for development at Lincolnshire County Council. County surveyors since their inception have always been known as the people in charge of the roads – Thomas Telford was one, and in modern times they were behind the creation of the modern motorway network. For much of the life of the CSS, county surveyors were engineers.
Today, Wills explains, the society's membership includes members from Metropolitan and Unitary authorities, men and women all of director or assistant director level and based throughout the United Kingdom. They have a wider range of responsibilities too – highways, transportation and waste, plus planning, environment and economic regeneration.
And they are no longer exclusively engineers – though Wills himself is a Fellow of the ICE. "My predecessor as president is a planner by profession, and I shall be succeeded by an accountant." But CSS, as the society is increasingly known, is intent on retaining its status as a professional body able to influence and to provide independent professional advice to government and to other interested bodies such as the Local Government Association.
Wills acknowledges that there are plenty of consultancies willing and eager to sell their expertise but, he says, the advantage of the CSS is that it is completely independent – it has no commercial interests and "speaks entirely from a local government perspective". And its advice is increasingly sought, both formally and informally.
"We often act as a sounding board", says Wills. Thanks to the strong culture of networking among members it is relatively straightforward for, say, a government department to discover how a proposed initiative or piece of new legislation would impact upon, or be received by local authorities.
One issue which is currently being studied by the CSS is the recent Sub-national review into economic regeneration & development. This will have a significant effect on local authorities because of the way in which future regional planning and funding will percolate down to local level. Wills is emphatic that this change is greater than simply a matter of more available cash. It will involve local of the areas they serve in, for instance, housing and transport.
"Increasingly, democratic accountability will lie at local level. Local government can influence what happens in the area", he says. But for this to work well authorities will have to consult and listen to what they are told, he believes. The answer doesn't necessarily lie in the politicians and professionals from the local authority imposing the answer to a local need or problem. "Sometimes community solutions are best".
Also of concern to the CSS is the government's latest Comprehensive Spending Review which is widely seen to be less than generous to local government as a whole. And while welcoming the emphasis on transport and in particular reducing journey times in the Public Spending Agreement (PSA), Wills warns that: "The PSA targets are particularly geared towards transport that is nationally controlled and managed. Routine highways maintenance for the local road network and support for rural public transport may become vulnerable. These are particularly vulnerable because they are funded from a restricted revenue budget".
It goes without saying that this summer's floods were a cause of concern to CSS members. Many of those not directly involved supplied manpower from their term maintenance contractors to work alongside the emergency services helping to fill sandbags and the like says Wills. Most counties were involved in the aftermath working with the Environment Agency.
The CSS has produced a five point plan designed to ensure that future flood emergencies can be better dealt with. But Wills clearly believes that some basic re-thinking is also required. "We may have to re-define standards like 'ten-year occurrence'", he suggests. And he also wonders where the money is to come from for the upgrade of drainage systems or replacement of combined sewers with separate systems.
Thinking of his own county of Lincolnshire, much of which lies below sea level, he wonders about storm surges and the need for sea defences. "If world population continues to rise, UK farmland will become more valuable," he suggests. There will be less food available for export and we shall be more reliant on home suppliers. Even now some 25% of the UK's vegetables are grown in Lincolnshire and if that percentage is to be maintained or increased, then it will be essential to protect the land from salt water inundation, which could put it out of production for many years.
He admits that this is thinking in the very long term, but he is at one with the CSS in believing that this is what must be done. A report on transport futures based on evidence taken in private by the society's working group is due to be published before the end of the year. This is taking a view of where transport and travel is likely to be in as much as 50 years from now. Some of the conclusions will be controversial, Wills promises, but the idea is to stimulate debate, not just between experts but among society in general, something he passionately believes authorities should do.
"We have a role to ensure that we understand the issues at least as well as our traditional areas of operation", he says. In that way he believes that CSS members and the teams they lead can inform the public about the choices the country faces in fields such as development, planning, transport, waste disposal and recycling, and so engage in a genuine debate as to how best to manage change and meet social demands.
Talk to Wills for more than a few minutes and you can't help but be infected by his belief that the world of the local government engineer can be both exciting and worthwhile. He might perhaps be accused of prejudice; he has after all spent his entire career in local government, starting at Cornwall County Council, which sponsored him through his civil engineering degree, and remaining there until he moved to Lincolnshire just seven years ago.
But he is clear that there is worthwhile role for the professional within local government. "More and more of them are recruiting engineers, even those who outsourced everything", he says. They have realised that they need to have their own professional expertise so that they can be a better client and get best value for money.
In his present position he admits that he is more of a manager, but his training and formation as an engineer has proved very helpful. "Even as a recent graduate when you go out with a technician you're still the person in charge, so it grows from there," he says.
Young engineers should consider local government, he firmly believes. "It's a great place to help shape the physical environment, but it requires more sophistication than a consultant or contractor. Politics is an important component of our work, and if anyone wants to change the world - or at least a small part of it - join us!"
CV Richard Wills
Born in the Midlands and brought up in Cornwall
Joined Cornwall County Council aged 18, worked for one year before being sponsored by the Council through a civil engineering degree at Leeds.
Graduated in 1978 with BSc(Hons),returned to Cornwall CC where he eventually became Assistant County Surveyor (Support Services) between 1991 - 1993; Head of Design Consultancy 1993 - 1998; Assistant County Surveyor (Client Services) 1998 - 2000.
Became Chartered in 1982 and was appointed FICE in 1998
Joined Lincolnshire County Council in 2000 as director of highways and planning.
Appointed Director of Development in 2005. Responsibilities include economic regeneration; transportation highways and traffic; sustainable communities; strategic planning and development control for waste and minerals; conservation; waste services; trading standards.
Appointed President of the County Surveyor's Society in 2007