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Sir John Armitt calls for contractors and designers to merge in ICE presidential address

Major contractors need to have in-house design capability if the UK is to remain competitive, according to new Institution of Civil Engineers president Sir John Armitt.

At his inaugural address last night attended by Construction News, the 151st ICE president argued in favour of merging contracting and design capability within organisations.

He said: “I believe that the European system – where major contractors have their own in-house design capability – can lead to more cost-effective solutions.

“Can you name another industry that separates design from manufacturer?

“I see this issue as a continuing challenge for our industry, notwithstanding the international reputation of UK consultant engineers.

“Increasing consolidation in our industry could lead to a wider coming together of contractors and designers.

“What has resulted from these mergers in the past has not always been successful. However, I do believe they are necessary if the UK is to remain competitive.”

Sir John made his address at the ICE’s headquarters in Westminster, in a speech to industry leaders and politicians including Network Rail, High Speed 2 and Crossrail’s chief executives Mark Carne, Simon Kirby and Andrew Wolstenholme, as well as CEOs of contractors including Bam Nuttall, Costain and Skanska.

Sir John also said the ICE will begin work on an independent and evidence-based needs assessment to help the commission develop a long-term vision to 2050.

Its report will be published in autumn 2016.

Sir John was recently appointed as a member of the government’s National Infrastructure Commission, the creation of which he recommended in his 2013 Infrastructure Review.

In the speech, which was also attended by the new commission’s chair Lord Adonis, he said: “We will begin work on an independent, evidence-based needs assessment.

“We will harness the group’s expertise to help the commission develop a shared long-term vision to 2050, and ultimately help to inform the many complex choices ahead.”

The needs assessment will feature work from the CBI, KPMG, National Grid, Transport for Greater Manchester as well as other major organisations.

Lord Adonis said: “Thinking more long term about the UK’s biggest infrastructure projects is at the heart of our plans for the new commission.

“That’s why it’s great news that Sir John Armitt is bringing his huge experience to our team, and his work with ICE is set to be a real asset to help fulfil our goal to ensure Britain has the world-class infrastructure it needs in the future.”

In his speech at the ICE last night, Sir John called for a shift in the debate around infrastructure from the “what” to the “why” when deciding which major projects are built in the UK.

“Why do we need this project? Why one project over alternatives?” he said.

“Why is this 70-year solution more appropriate, or will a 20-year solution suffice – and can we make better use of existing infrastructure? What are the benefits, risks and opportunities of each?

“When faced with tough choices, government, industry, investors and the public alike should always start by asking ‘why’.

“This will ensure choices are strategic, and that public and private money, charges to customers, and investors’ funds are used for best collective benefit.”

“The public pay for infrastructure – either as taxpayers, shareholders or customers of utilities – they are the end-users of it and are impacted by its construction.

“As a result, politicians are ultimately held to account by the voter and are bound to interfere for good and bad. We cannot change this.

“But we need a mechanism which provides dispassionate analysis of our long-term infrastructure needs and acts as a catalyst for reaching consensus on those needs.

“The effects of achieving consensus cannot be overstated – it could enable the kind of infrastructure revolution not seen since our great forebears in the 19th century. 

“I am pleased to see cross-party support for a commission, and to be part of something I have advocated and believe in.”

Readers' comments (1)

  • Sir John raises two issues; Infrastructure planning and the effect of separation of design and construction on project efficiency.
    Lack of infrastructure is a block on development. However coherent development and infrastructure plans would create development value, as the Victorians did with projects such as the Bakerloo line and its conurbations. Major planned infrastructure and development proposals would provide an opportunity for the government as client to set standards for manufacturing led design and integrated working relationships. Sir John’s second point, on fragmentation, is in part due to the volatility of our industry which prevents look term investments in research, system build and integration. A pipeline of long term projects would provide a climate for investment in innovation.
    The establishment of a National Infrastructure body is already an acknowledgment of Sir John’s work and his appointment on it will hopefully see a systematic approach to development.

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