I wish I had grown up to be an engineer. They are the problem solvers. They build bridges, dig tunnels and walk under the ocean. They can point to breath taking accomplishments for their efforts.
At university, the engineering students donned their anoraks at the crack of dawn and set off for their lectures. The arts students favoured a later start to fulfil their grandiose ambitions to change the world. Arguably the engineers have achieved far more benefit for human good than the social workers.
This region can be proud of outstanding local firms clearing mine fields, constructing oil rigs and building trains. So I was attracted to the idea put forward by Liz Mayes of the Engineering Employers Federation in a new report that engineers should be represented on whatever form of devolved administration is agreed for the north east. There would be at least one practically minded, hard hatted person at the table.
Liz Mayes may not go far enough. Perhaps the engineers should be put in charge of the north east today and take over the world tomorrow. They would be good at infrastructure, transport and skills. I know they can get up early to make decisions and obtain results. If a token politician was needed, then Chi Onurwah could be recruited as she, unusually for a member of parliament, has a degree in electrical engineering.
Of course, there would be complaints from other sections of the business community. What about a place for the all important car manufacturers? The managing director of Volkswagen UK lamented that he was not an engineer when he appeared before the parliamentary select committee. Only an engineer can tell you what goes on under the bonnet, he said, playing the card that ignorance is bliss. If he is to be believed, engineers have a dark side.
Speaker after speaker at the powerhouse breakfast last Friday proclaimed that business must be at the table. As Ross Forbes from North East Chamber put it “The big question that needs to be addressed is what will be the role of business in governance”. There might be a scramble between the Chamber, the CBI, the Federation of Small Business and the Entrepreneurs Forum as to who can shout loudest but business must be there.
Business creates wealth and brings thousands of jobs to the area. That’s the mantra. Business knows best and deserves a large say in how government money is deployed. Just don’t mention it in Redcar for the next few weeks.
It is a long time since my A level Economics course ( Grade C) and I may not have got the hang of the subject. In those days, the purpose of business was to pay dividends to shareholders and make a profit for the owners. That is presumably why Barclays has appointed an investment banker to perk up its profits again. Humdrum retail banking helps the world go round but it does not make enough money for the bankers.
Don’t be fooled. Business leaders may be bright people with strong opinions but they are a vested interest to be sat alongside the trade unionists, the educationalists, the health services and, for that matter, the esteemed columnists on the Journal, several of whom are itching to be appointed to a devolved assembly.
There can be an arrogance in the business world that assumes that anyone who can manufacture a widget can chair a committee or run a government. Entrepreneurs are head strong people used to getting their own way. They do not necessarily have the skills to deal with Whitehall mandarins or negotiate a compromise.
The only names not mentioned in the hustings to sit on a devolved assembly are leading politicians like, in alphabetical order, Nick Forbes, Simon Henig and Mick Henry behind whom sit some excellent chief executives. The implication in the Engineering Employers Federation report and elsewhere is that they cannot be trusted to do the job and that is an insult to them.
Of course, in this part of the world, the elected members do no hold the same political views as either the business community or the government of the day so it is tempting to appoint a business meritocracy to dilute their influence. When even I can ask a question of the Prime Minister, there must be scope for widespread consultation with all sides. You may call me old fashioned, but I think the elected politicians should be left to actually run the show.
The devolution programme to the English regions cherry picks the cities but leaves big gaps in between. It could have benefited from the rigorous thought generated by a ponderous commission or by an efficient early morning gathering of engineers.
Thank goodness that the devolution package will be signed this week with a flourish and probably a stunt. If we must have an elected mayor, there is no need to resort to a man in a monkey suit. The package could have been bigger in size and scope but we need to rejoice that it has come to pass and get on with the job of running the region in the manner of an engineer.
published in Newcastle Journal 19th October