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Teams test their mettle against hostile 'public'

PROMOTING AN infrastructure scheme in front of a sceptical and often hostile local community can be an intimidating prospect.

Civil engineers holding public meetings as part of the consultation process have to remain polite and composed under fire.

The ability of four teams of young engineers to hold a public meeting was put to the test last week at the London regional round of NCE's Communication Competition.

Four teams representing Hampshire and Cornwall County Councils, the Royal Engineers and a joint team of WS Atkins and Essex County Council were competing for a place in the final to be held at the Association of Municipal Engineers conference on 19 June.

Chairman of the judges and head of public affairs at Union Railways, Bernard Gambrill, kicked off the round with a passionate plea to the audience not to heckle too much. Traditionally some audience members take their roles as hostile members of the public a little too seriously and do not give the teams a chance to put their points across, he said. In previous competitions teams have had to contend with being shouted down, speaking while mobile phones are loudly answered and having personal insults hurled at them.

As a veteran of public meetings for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, Gambrill said that some of the more exuberant audience participation was not realistic.

His plea for rational questioning rather than abuse was respected by the audience .

Hampshire County Council, Essex County Council/WS Atkins and Cornwall County Council put forward the case for a guided bus way between the imaginary towns of Scartonbridge and Aceville. An earlier proposal from the local council to widen the existing link road through the marshes with £8M through its local transport plan had caused public uproar. The teams were representing the Get There Quick Bus Consortium which was proposing an alternative route costing £12M, that would be more direct and would stop off at the historic Founders District tourist attraction.

Meanwhile the Royal Engineers team represented a port builder promoting a deep water port at the imaginary Emerald Bay on the promise that jobs would be created and regeneration would be worth the environmental upheaval and relocation of wildlife.

Eventual winners WS Atkins/ Essex team, anchored by the self assured Liz Partington, impressed the judges with their clear, calm, well delivered case for the guided bus and good use of visual aids. At one stage, team member Andrew Whybrow stopped to explain, in an engaging, unpatronizing way, how the guided bus concept works for members of the public not familiar with it. The winners were not quite as confident under questioning as some of their counterparts but made an excellent written submission that was well laid out and easy to read.

WS Atkins/Essex County Council now progress to the final on the first evening of the Association of Municipal Engineers conference on 19 June at Bath University at 7pm. Joining them will be the Ove Arup team from the East Midlands and Bechtel Water from North West.

All are invited to a drinks reception at 6pm before the final gets under way.

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