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Sydney Lenssen More spinach for concrete's muscles


August is 'all-change' month at the British Cement Association in Crowthorne. Out goes Jim Stevenson, the ebullient wise-crack-a-minute songster and chief executive. He retires after 10 years remodelling 'the greater and better use of cement and concrete' and slimming down BCA to what the cement makers want to afford.

In comes Mike Gilbert, erstwhile architect, marathon runner and another manager of change, previously with IBM and BSI. He talks about 'hot buttons' which excite him - good design and the environment - but his main job over the coming months is to re-visit what BCA's masters want.

Civil engineering is still an industry with two basic materials - concrete and steel. What cement makers Blue Circle, Rugby, Castle Cement and Buxton Lime decide - whether they'll pay for more technical and promotional substance - is important.

George Somerville, BCA's director of engineering, will also give up full time in November. An old hand, he goes back to 1960: 'Most visitors to BCA still hark back to Wexham Springs and the Cement and Concrete Association.' That's not always easy to live with.

BCA was born in 1987 out of the C&CA, the Cement Makers Federation and a wish to save money. For decades Britain's cement industry had operated a cartel, judged by several official Government inquiries to be in the public interest. In the harsher Thatcher climate, the common price agreement had to go. Forced to compete, the cement makers quickly chopped back what had become the world's leading authority on concrete.

Stevenson was brought in, knowing nothing about concrete, when staff had already fallen from 500 to 200. Two years later BCA was down to 26, Wexham Springs was sold off, and the fledglings had migrated to a steel- framed three-storey block as tenants of the Transport Research Laboratory. 'The fact that anything survived,' said one survivor last week, 'is a tribute to the sharp mind behind Jim's bonhomie'.

Started in 1934, the old C&CA was an international institution, loved by engineers, providing soft-sell, solidly researched advice. It ran tax- exempt holidays for architects and engineers to all parts of the globe to meet leading contemporaries and their works. The levy on every ton of cement paid for the best talents and lots of training. Proactive marketing sold ideas and cement.

The UK's annual cement deliveries now range between 13Mt and 15Mt, about the same as a decade ago, with the number of works halved to 20. Promotional costs are probably 10% of previous levels, an annual saving of £20M - my guess.

I would be the last to suggest a return to halcyon days of croquet, strawberries and champagne on the lawns at Wexham. But the paymasters should ask if BCA and its 40 staff pack sufficient punch. They got DETR's ban on post-tensioned bridges lifted after four hard years of argument, but what would happen in a high alumina scale scare?

BCA still benefits from the legacy of better days. By the end of the next decade, decision-making engineers won't recall names like Leo Russell, Roy Rowe and Phillip Gooding, or even C&CA. BCA will be seen for what it is, a well-meaning but minor influence on the domestic scene. Stevenson's achievement has been to retain enthusiasm. With limited funds, BCA is largely a catalyst, nurturing associated bodies and getting others to do and pay more.

Tides have a habit of turning, and it's time for BCA's muscle power to be given extra helpings of spinach.

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