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Why our professional responsibility is to learn from failure

For all the political energy and real public cash being invested now in major civil engineering projects around the UK, all is not necessarily well with the nation's infrastructure.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

Certainly we have been blessed by some serious investment of late. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link and Heathrow T5 are about to open, the 2012 Olympics is kicking off, motorway widening is in hand, Crossrail and Thameslink are close to a start and tall buildings are going up all around us.

It is, as we keep being reminded, an exciting time to be a civil engineer and an exciting time to be involved in UK infrastructure.

But that is not the full story. While no one, least of all NCE, would argue that this new infrastructure is not absolutely vital to the on-going success of the UK economy, alone it is not enough.

Put simply, we don't spend enough time, energy or money in the UK on the maintenance and renewal of the basic infrastructure that keeps the nation alive - particularly at the very important local level.

It is a mistake that we make at our peril. And we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into thinking that because the cash isn't there we are relieved of our responsibility. As professionals we most certainly are not.

This week's report into last year's bridge collapse in Canada should come as a stark warning to us of the consequences of ignoring the obvious. It should come as a reminder that the combination of underinvestment and lack of proper, well planned asset management will sooner or later have disastrous consequences.

And bearing in mind the scenes we witnessed in August after the Minneapolis I35W bridge collapse, surely no engineer or politician can sleep easily without proper asset management techniques in place.

OK, nothing has fallen down in such dramatic style in the UK yet. But are we really sure that nothing is about to? Because we have to be.
We need to reframe our thinking to start approaching our infrastructure as the asset that it is rather than the liability that it is too often referred.

It is possible to do. We have seen, for example, how the water industry has altered its view of asset management in response to customer and share holder demand and we are seeing both Network Rail and the Highways Agency start to radically alter their approach to maintenance and risk of failure over the last few years.

All still have much to do before real success is achieved. But compared to most local authorities they remain light years ahead in terms of really utilising infrastructure assets to deliver value to customers.

So yes, more cash is vital. Yes, more government support is required. But so is more thought and more engineering planning.

Proper asset management planning is crucial if we are to guarantee the public's safety while balancing the public's purse. It is crucial if we are to discharge our engineering responsibilities effectively.

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