Friday 5 December 2014

The Fall And Fade Of The Municipal Engineer

I have some technical posts in the pipeline, but they are taking a little bit of time. So, this week, a bit of navel-gazing I am afraid.

I have been doing my current job for nearly 10 years, which is the longest period I have ever done one job. Of course, local authority highways work is so varied, there is always something new going on. Next summer, I will have been in the industry 20 years and the one constant has been change which of course serves to keep life interesting.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to work in various areas of civil engineering and I am a civil engineer foremost; highways being a more recent specialism which has its lineage in municipal engineering. The municipal engineer was the unsung hero of the civil engineering world. Mainly working in local authorities, they worked day in and day out on what could sometimes be routine, never for the money and never for the glory. The municipal engineer could turn their skills to a variety of schemes from roads, to drainage, to coastal defences, to water supply, to public health, to waste management. Doing a good job was the main source of satisfaction. Sadly, the municipal engineer is fading from society.

My recent working life has been a series of restructures as my team has been moved between departments and bosses. We lost many staff in 2010 as a direct result of Government cuts and we are at the start of the next round which will be even more swingeing and I am not sure the public understands what is at stake.

I have a chart from April 1973 showing the structure of the Borough Engineer & Surveyor's division for my authority. There were 124 staff, mostly technical, but with a small administration team (and that doesn't include the direct labour workforce). 40 years later, there are now about 25 of us - I say "about" because there is always some turnover of staff and it is a bit of a guesstimate with some jobs. 

In those 40 years we have had privatisation of water which means the drainage department ended up with Thames Water; but the shrinkages have been a result of cuts (all Governments to take blame here), a gradual dilution of technical functions, outsourcing, restructures and redundancy/ retirement - the annual Christmas lunch has more former-employees than current staff! 

Municipal engineers used to run things in local government as the council-owned built environment was (and probably still is) the largest public asset and rightly or wrongly (when we think of some of the road schemes built by local authorities!) there was professional leadership and focus, but this has changed. Professional managers, generic job profiles and competency frameworks are now the order of the day. 

Engineers are being replaced by service managers and customer relationship specialists (the IT Crowd really is spot on). The public can no longer pick up the phone in the brave new world of shared services, multi-borough contact centres, self-service and on-line systems. OK, these systems are there to save money, but people often just want to chat to someone about their issues.

My authority is not unusual. I speak to people around the country and the situation is the same. There are some places which have invested in their staff, but many have not and it is no wonder that many consultants are staffed by ex-local authority people and indeed, many started by ex-local authority people. We have large consultant-contractor consortia which suck in staff as they are able to offer attractive packages and adapt to the market whereas local authorities simply cannot complete, more so in an austere environment. We also have lots of people working through agencies because they cannot work for less, foregoing benefits such as sick leave and a pension.

My industry is also suffering from a huge skills shortage. The collective civil engineering and construction workforce is aging and people don't want to come into the industry. Civil engineering graduates go into better paid sectors (student loan repayments being a big issue), we don't have enough apprentices and so the skilled labour we need to physically do the work is not there. Against the backdrop of the Government re-announcing all of the this construction work, I wonder where they think they are going to get people from (thank goodness for the EU!)

But, as I start to sound like my bosses from years ago, who also yearned for a rose-tinted past, I have to remain positive. I still have a job, I have interesting work and I work with some great people. But, just let me shed a tear every so often as the municipal engineer fades into a warm and comfortable long sleep. One day, we will be back, to sort out the mess like we always have done.


  1. I'd be interested to know how much actual design work you/your department does. We're on framework agreements with a number of local authorities and it seems for the most part the LA engineers (at least the ones we interact with) are basically just managing this outsourcing of work, whatever level they are at.

    Andy R.

    1. So that's proof of the demise then?

  2. I am lucky as we deal with most of our design work - at least for the routine, but we end up outsourcing the larger projects often because our regeneration department seems to like external people (and funding timelines are often stupid). If I ended just managing outsourced work, then I would be off - it is only the design work keeping me sane.