Construction is too important to be left to the many venerable and dignified institutions that adorn our industry. If they’re to change, drastic action may be necessary

The East of England Development Association recently ran a fantastic competition for a “star of the east” to rival Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North. There were 250 entries, from which they have selected four for feasibility studies. One of these was proposed by a young German team who hadn’t visited England, and it consisted of recreating the form of the six drowned churches of Dunwich.

Dunwich was once the sixth-largest town in the UK and a major port. Now it has all been lost to the sea, apart from remnants of the city walls. It now consists of a beach car park, pub, fish-and-chip shop and church, and no more than 20 houses; although there are probably another 50 people who would consider themselves as living in Dunwich. I know many of them well, as we have a cottage nearby.

I met one of the young Germans recently and volunteered to introduce him to the locals. What is interesting, but not at all surprising, is that, although many of these locals rather like the idea, in private, collectively they are far from enthusiastic. What our young Germans need to understand is that here is a community where some believe that we should not even have the car park, as it attracts visitors.

This frame of mind is wonderfully English and reminds me of the position that members of institutions take, too. In my naive way, I did imagine that when I became president of the Institution of Civil Engineers that it might be possible to bring together groups that clearly belonged together – such as the ICE, the Institution of Structural Engineers or even, to be more radical, the ICE and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (which started off together, and are neighbours in Whitehall).

What was interesting was that, as with Dunwich, there was individual enthusiasm from my equivalents in both organisations. We even reached an agreement, in loose terms, based on the way that the peace agreement was negotiated in Northern Ireland. This was, simply, not to attempt to unify the institutions but to recognise that it was in the interests of the members, and society at large, that we should, at some time, when the conditions were right, co-exist as a single membership body – just as in Northern Ireland. This was the first step.

At the IMechE, the initiative almost made it on to paper, but was overtaken by the (now failed) attempt to merge the mechanicals and the electricals – an initiative that, I would like to think, the civils would have joined had it been successful. Their problem was that the two institutions set out to solve everything at once, and the devil was in the detail.

As for the proposed merger between the IStructE, I had some fruitful discussions with my opposite number in the structurals in the lead up to my presidency, and, on becoming president, I hosted a dinner for our respective executives. As a fellow of both institutions I was comfortably on both sides. When the evening came, and our executives flew in from across the country, the structurals – all but their chief executive – cried off with a variety of excuses that sounded plausible individually, but were a case of collective cold feet amounting to frostbite. I left it that, as the civils had made the first attempt, perhaps the structurals could organise a second. They never did, although my understanding is that they were not necessarily encouraged to try again by the staff at the civils.

When the evening came, the structurals suffered a case of collective cold feet amounting to frostbite

My frustration turned to disappointment, but I consoled myself by steering through an initiative that meant any member of the structurals or the mechanicals who is a chartered engineer, can join the civils without an examination, provided they have a number of ICE members to support them.

I have discovered that the same frustration exists with other colleagues who have volunteered their time to similar organisations and have found that construction is being hindered by the collective inaction and infighting between the many institutions. This is not just a frustration but a situation that denies society at large the best in terms of economic, environmental and social well-being, and it pains me to think that I should pass on the status quo that I inherited 30 years ago.

All of the institutions that are involved in managing this situation are governed by a royal Charter and have charitable status. Many have business activities that significantly exceed their member activities in terms of their overall effort and financial turnover.

The issues the professions face are collective issues, belonging to everybody, whether they be sustainability or education, the quality of design or the safety of the workforce. It is no longer appropriate to rely on the sticking plaster offered by the Construction Industry Council or the Engineering Council to cover the cracks.

Dunwich may survive without the icons of the east, but in the case of Northern Ireland there was no question of the situation continuing.

In the case of engineering and construction, a number of senior members of the industry believe that we belong to the latter category and that there is genuine reason for our industry to petition the Privy Council and demand that the royal charters of our institutions be withdrawn unless they can collectively show a serious will to embrace the challenges facing the industry in the 21st century. All those in favour …