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The state of the nation

NCE and the ICE this week launch a campaign to educate the UK's opinion formers about the need to improve the country's infrastructure. NCE editor Alastair McLellan explains.

For years, civil engineers have struggled to impress on politicians, the business community, the media and the general public the importance of good quality infrastructure. The contribution that, for example, an efficient transport network or a reliable energy system can have on quality of life and the competitiveness of British business is difficult to get across to those outside the profession.

But that message is vital. Although civil engineers care for and develop the UK's roads, rail energy and water infrastructure, they do so in a framework set by politicians, the media and other opinion formers. The work civil engineers do is also heavily influenced by the attitudes of the clients, the business community and the man and woman in the street. Without the knowledge of why civil engineering work is necessary and desirable, it is unlikely that the right decisions will be made, the proper resources allocated or the profession held in proper regard.

Must do better NCE decided to team up with the ICE to devise the clearest possible method of communicating the importance of good quality infrastructure to those that need to know.

The result is the State of the Nation report card which was launched at Civils 2000 this Wednesday.

Our group of experts met in late April to decide on the grades for our first report card. The meeting was lively with strong disagreement in some areas.

Many of our experts were persuaded to alter their grades slightly following lengthy and informed debate.

However, the overall picture that emerged is one that most civil engineers will recognise as an accurate one of the state of the UK's infrastructure.

Taken as a whole, the State of the Nation provides a powerful argument for clear policy making and, often, significant investment in the UK's infrastructure. This plea for action does not come from a desire to feather the civil engineering nest, though increased workload would result from many recommendations. It comes from a desire to make the UK a better country in which to work and live.

It also clearly reveals the priorities for action. Some of these priorities are unsurprising. Few would be unaware of the need for radical improvement of the quality of local transpor t. But many, including some civil engineers, would be surprised at just how worrying is the UK's record in waste minimisation and disposal.

The next State of the Nation report is due to be published in November. We hope that it will become a powerful influence in shaping public opinion and government policy.

The report card The idea of the report card is deliberately straightforward.

Divide the nation's infrastructure into seven categories: road, rail, local transport, water, energy, urban regeneration and waste.

Assemble a group of experts able to make authoritative judgements on those categories. Also, use these experts as a peer review group to make sure that the judgements can stand up to scrutiny.

Appoint a highly knowledgeable and respected chair of the panel to make the final judgements on all issues.

Give each of those categories a grade, exactly as in a school report, depending on the condition of its infrastructure. A = Good, B = Fair, C = Average, D = Poor, E = Bad.

Indicate whether the situation is improving, declining or staying stable.

Provide a short commentary to explain the grading and to set out what action needs to be taken to improve the situation.

Calculate an overall grade by averaging all the other grades to give the big picture.

Provide a 'sustainability grade' to measure how well environmental and social concerns are being integrated with economic issues.

Put all this information together on one user-friendly report card which will make infrastructure issues 'come alive' for non-technicians.

Mail the report card to the country's most influential policy makers and opinion formers.

Repeat at six month intervals to keep the issue fresh in people's minds and to plot any changes.

The state of the nation panel

Chair: Joe Dwyer, ICE senior vice president

Rail: Rob Boulger, Balfour Beatty Rail Projects managing director

Water: Colin Fenn, WS Atkins director

Environment: Peter Guthrie

Local transport: Graham Harding

Waste: John Lucas

Urban regeneration: Duncan Michael

Roads: Martin Smith, University of Birmingham Professor

Energy: Steve Taylor

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