Article - Issue 34, March 2008

Planning Reform Bill; Responses to Engineering is not a spectator sport

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Planning Reform Bill

I read with interest your editorial in Ingenia33 on ‘Planning for a Low-carbon Economy’ which discussed the forthcoming Planning Reform Bill and its ambitions for streamlining the current decision making process for major infrastructure projects. I, like many, would welcome a separate, more efficient regime, but share your concerns over the failings and omissions of the proposals set out in last year’s Planning White Paper.

The proposed National Infrastructure Policy Statements (NIPS) seek to shorten inquiry time by establishing in advance a need for “nationally significant infrastructure projects” and limiting debate on a specific application to only local issues. It is intended that NIPS will be subject to wide consultation prior to adoption as policy. However, where there is a relevant existing policy statement, this will acquire the status of NIPS without, it seems, any additional consultation with the public.

Given that NIPS will be used by the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) in determining an application, it is very important that the Government is prepared to make controversial decisions on the need for, and preferred locations for, nationally important infrastructure. This Government, with its large majority, has shown it will take such decisions in areas such as airport capacity and energy supply. Will future Governments with smaller majorities be prepared to upset voters in marginal constituencies by identifying these areas as sites for infrastructure improvements?

The notion of a statutory time limit of nine months from start to finish is admirable, but is it adequate to ensure public confidence in the decision making process? Having already limited the debate to the local impact of the proposal, the intention is to minimise oral submissions in favour of written representations, save for an ‘open floor’ style session where anybody can appear and make representations; a kind of safety valve for objectors perhaps? Even with the latter in place, there must be some doubt as to the adequacy of a decision made in this timescale, paving the way for a raft of legal challenges and inevitable delay.

Much emphasis is placed on the independence and combined expertise of the commissioners who will make up the panel for each inquiry. However, the conflict between its role as guide, adviser and decision-maker and its lack of accountability could be an added source of legal action. Further, it seems to me that greater thought must be given to how the IPC intends to reach its decision. Will it be made by consensus or majority? Will it produce a single report on its decision and how will any minority opinions be aired? Given that the Government is hoping to have the IPC in place by April 2009, clarity on these points is urgently needed.

David Watkins

Partner, Linklaters LLP

Responses to: Engineering is not a spectator sport

The call for a rethink of engineering education from Professor Goodhew FREng (Opinion, Ingenia 33, December 2007) is timely and well argued. My own experience in industry, echoed by David Waboso FREng in the Hinton lecture last month, is that the UK has embarked upon more engineering projects than we have good engineering graduates to staff. There is no quick fix, but it is imperative that our schools of engineering attract more of our brightest young people, fill them with enthusiasm and understanding as well as knowledge, and persuade them to take up a career in engineering. The Academy is of course working hard to achieve this. The initiatives undertaken by universities such as Liverpool are to be welcomed, whether encouraged by the Conceive, Design, Implement and Operate (CDIO) initiative or stimulated by their own enlightened self-interest. However, it is undoubtedly the case that most active learning methods will be more expensive than their passive predecessors. Learning by doing must take more space and resources than sitting in a lecture theatre.

This is so important that the Academy must lobby Government, and its friends in industry must put their hands in their pockets to ensure that our future engineers receive an education as good as that which we provide for our doctors and surgeons. It costs the same to educate an engineer as it does a surgeon. Engineering departments in our universities need to be funded to a level that recognises this reality.

John Roberts CBE FREng

Retired, formerly Chief Executive,
United Utilities

I was encouraged by Professor Peter Goodhew’s Opinion piece in Ingenia 33, as he has pioneered many new ideas for educating enginees. At Imperial College we are also looking at how we deliver a world class engineering education in an ever-changing world facing global challenges. Engineering solutions will be vital to such issues as energy, environment, health, water, and transport – to name but a few.

What type of education satisfies the need for depth (professional skills) with the need for an integrated approach that results in holistic solutions? Despite calls for an even longer undergraduate training period to take these two aspects into account, the reality is, in the UK, that this educational experience has to be conveyed within a four year period.

At Imperial, most new students initially want to study a particular branch of engineering in depth. We could call this the traditional approach which many readers will have experienced. A number though, change this viewpoint during their course. Some of the evidence we have is that the course does not contain enough hands-on real practical experience. Others, wooed by the City finance houses see that this option is probably a more profitable way to earn a living.

There are a number of aspects to the current debate that need attention. Firstly, we need to tackle the supply of students issue. I have often compared the teaching of engineering with that of learning a musical instrument. When a student takes up a musical instrument, it is not long before they have to perform in public. It may be excruciating for parents to listen to the scraping at first, but the idea that a skill base needs to be developed in conjunction with the ability to perform and interpret is set at the start. However for engineering education much of the traditional thinking is that students should grind through secondary schooling and then four years of university education before integrating what they have learnt. No wonder many fall by the wayside.

Secondly, I am convinced that students should teach themselves more. Content is freely available and teachers can help students assess the value of this, assess its provenance and then put the factual material into context within an interactive setting.

The other common cry is to reduce the amount of detailed bureaucracy. We need to treasure and reward the academics teaching and researching in engineering and reduce the requirement for unnecessary form-filling. The future of our society rests partly on their outputs. It is time to treat the issue seriously.

Professor John Wood CBE FREng

Principal, Faculty of Engineering, Imperial College

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