Sunday, 15 December 2019

Taking Stock

The British (perhaps specifically the English) have never had to account for their past and perhaps with the election result this week, our reckoning might finally be here.

Because of a quirk of geography, we have always looked beyond our shores (and I realise there has been a long process of definition and redefinition of who "we" are). We've looked beyond our shores for trade, for conquest and for resources (with them often being violently linked). To my shame, I don't know anywhere near as much as I should about what we have done over the years.

I'll have been an engineer for 25 years next year. Over that time I have at least learned a few things and perhaps the key is that we need to collectively solve. Our country has not been built in isolation, it has taken the ingenuity, sweat, blood and indeed the lives of people from beyond the horizon. Even the word "engineer" comes from elsewhere with roots in the French word ingĂ©nieur which itself has Latin origins. Although on the European mainland, engineers are held with more social esteem that they are in the UK (with added post-expert reasoning these days).

The early days of engineering were distinctly military, but in the 18th Century, civil engineering was born which provided a distinction from military work. The professionalisation of civil engineering then properly sparked 200 years ago in a coffee house in London, my home city - an internationally facing city. To this day, people come from all over the world to work in London as civil engineers because of the opportunities which are available and to be involved powerhouse of UK engineering and construction - we have simply never had enough people in the UK to run our industry and the next few years look to be even worse.

It has been a tough year for me professionally and I'm not ready to write about it in detail. I worked for a local authority where I thought I was making a difference because it is also the place where I live and many of the wins we had for local transport were despite the politics (which latterly to a lurch towards the populist, isolationist fantasy we've seen in recent years). In some ways, I can see how the easy, popular and noisy responses to local consultations have been replicated in this week's vote - everything is binary. There are no long term goals. There is no vision.

For example, we had a bus stop accessibility programme which sought to ensure that the footway environment was compatible with low floor buses and the bus stop area restricted from parking. This meant that everyone could get on the bus more easily. I oversaw the improvement of well over 500 bus stops in a programme which took well over a decade to get 95% of them in the borough dealt with. 

So many were fought on a site by site basis and I cannot begin to explain the energy and perseverance my team and I invested to get the job done - a job we knew was the right thing to do. One councillor in particular used his influence to obstruct and frustrate progress because inevitable we took away on-street car parking (or the ability to park on street). We completed the programme after this councillor died, so their legacy is one of obstruction and not making life better for people.

As best as I can work out in my brain, the same long game of trying to make our streets and places better and to deal with climate change must include how we deal with the likes of Johnson. People react to propositions in accordance of how they are affected at the time and they almost always fail to see a larger picture. The person who noisily rejects a bus stop being made accessible because of person parking today, is the frail car-free pensioner in the future who relies on the bus tomorrow. The politician which ideologically supported the resident has long gone and so it's up to us who want change to keep those fires burning.

I really don't get the machinations and the subtleties of politics. I have never been in a political party and I doubt I ever will, but I've largely voted in a way which I think might help get our problems solved. My only advice is that those with the power need to be held accountable, even if in the short term they ignore you and make the politically expedient choices. In engineering, there are sometimes easy jobs and quick wins, but mainly it takes thought, application and hard work and at least with this week's result, the county has elected someone which shies away at all three.

The ultimate irony for me I suppose is that I now work for the UK subsidiary of a Scandinavian company where teamwork and knowledge sharing are are the heart of the company's approach. Isn't life funny?

1 comment:

  1. Every great improvement for human progress is the result of countless hours of labour for tiny incremental gains.

    Then there comes a crisis. To quote my dear departed father, "The important thing to remember about an unsustainable system is that it cannot be sustained." When the crisis inevitably comes, it is important to have people like you in place that can make the necessary change happen. To quote Sir Winston Churchill, "It is a shame to let a perfectly good crisis go to waste."

    For our transportation system, that crisis can come overnight. Suppose that tomorrow there is a revolution in Saudi Arabia and oil prices triple? The liberals may be able to win an election, but only the Islamic fundamentalists can win a revolution. Because they are willing to die for their cause. And ISIS demonstrated to everyone that an Arab government can support itself by taxing the people, just like every other government. For a new Saudi government, reversing their lengthy history of humiliation and bringing low the arrogant West by turning off their oil exports is a rational and sensible policy.

    I predict that transitioning away from our present car-dominated transportation system will happen in the following way: Lots of hard work for incremental change, followed by a crisis that requires this transition to happen rapidly.