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Highways Magazine interviews IHE President Stephen Webb
- Monday November 16, 2020
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
The new President of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), Stephen Webb, is determined to ensure his organisation and the sector it represents emerge stronger from the COVID crisis. Not just ‘build back better’ but adapt and get fitter. He talks to Dominic Browne
Back at the drawing board he official handover of the IHE presidency took place during a virtual Annual General Meeting this July. The ceremony itself represents Mr Webb’s argument and mission: that the highways sector is adapting well to the COVID crisis and must keep moving forward.
‘COVID has had an influence on my plans but an influence in momentum more than anything,’ he says.
As part of his presidency, he was always hoping to look at the IHE ‘as an operation and make it more lean, mainly focused on the carbon footprint and how we do business’. ‘My aspiration was to look at how we can meet online, how we meet as an organisation, how we deliver aspects of our offer. Those plans have been accelerated.’
This goes beyond just internal operations. As the IHE is the leading source of highways professional training in the sector, Mr Webb has made sure it wastes no time in carrying out a review of its training offer in the light of the crisis: ‘We are going through that right now. It is top of our agenda.
‘We have to see what is feasible to translate online. Some of our courses are residential; four days split into two plus two. Some of those need to be restructured because there are challenges around maintaining engagement for a four-day course on an online platform. So we need to evolve and provide an alternative that is still engaging and efficient for our members.
‘Some things can easily translate to a meeting format but for training – not just a webinar but a day’s training – there needs to be some further thought. We need to engage with our training organisations on how they would partner with this.
‘Where it needs to be face to face, we need to work out logistically how we can best deliver that in a safe environment, managed as a COVID-secure location.’
This prompts the question as to whether the training itself needs to change, considering the mountain of new considerations we are all having to balance.
Mr Webb replies: ‘We are looking at other opportunities; for instance, active travel, cycling and walking, which is a key topic in response to COVID. With our professional development group we are constantly reviewing what we feel would be beneficial to our members. We have reached out to our members through a survey.’
The new President has a teamwork mentality and desire to try new things that is wellsuited to this moment.
He certainly seems at home in the new environment, literally, as he takes our video call from his cosy kitchen and shows no sign of fatigue despite his day job being taken up by meetings and phone calls.
Many choose this profession through the desire to know how things work, the tinkerer’s promise to take things apart and improve them, combined of course with a nose for petrol and engines. Mr Webb doesn’t lack this – he builds his own bikes and we will come to his Ferrari story later – but his talents first went in the direction of art. He studied civil engineering at the University of the West of England, but his ‘talent at school was art, which led me to the drawing office in the 1980s and I worked as a draughtsman’. He gives a moment’s reflection on draughts, line drawing and the skill it took, a lost art perhaps. But Mr Webb is not one to hold back time.
‘I moved on to become an AutoCAD technician. The world had evolved. I gained my EngTech with the ICE and then followed that up gaining my IEng status with IHE in 2007.’
Talking of early days, he reflects: ‘I was not always in highways. I spent 1998 to about 2001 doing civil engineering works associated with waste water treatment. That involved inland sewage works and coastal bathing water as well. I had a lot of sites around the South West for improving bathing water.’
Hunting around the South West trying to improve bathing spots is not all bad, he suggests.
Then came the start of a few love affairs and what seems to be a marriage, professionally speaking. ‘In 2001 I moved into the highways sector for the first time when I joined Atkins. This had me co-locating in Somerset CC. I started off in the accident investigation and prevention team. My career grew through working with Atkins and my peers in Somerset. I progressed and became principal engineer in Atkins in mid-2000s and group manager a few years later.
‘I joined Parsons Brinkerhoff in 2010. I continued to serve Somerset CC and have been ever since. Parsons Brinckerhoff were merged with WSP, and I continue to work with WSP, where I am the commission manager for the Somerset County Council professional services contract.’
Like many people in the sector, Mr Webb scorns the transactional contract relationship. One can see why. It might be hard to tell where WSP ends, but it is not hard to see where Somerset begins.
On the subject of the Highways Sector Council and sector deal proposal currently under consideration, the draughtsman will not be drawn. But if you want to know his vision for the next two years (the length of his presidency): ‘My key concern is resilience as a highways industry. Pre-COVID it was recognised we had a skills shortage. The industry has demonstrated a tremendous ability to react and adapt to the situation but obviously post-COVID we have to make sure we have the necessary resilience in place and commit to regrowth to ensure our sector can continue to improve and maintain our network.
‘The industry needs to come at things from a different way of working now; adopt smarter ways of working and learn from the new situation. Another big issue is mental health and wellbeing. This was obviously an issue before COVID. It is essential we ensure our workforce has the right balances in life.’
Now for that Ferrari story. As a younger man, Mr Webb was something of a traveller. His record is 13 countries in one year, across more than one continent. One of those countries was Monaco, where, for a charitable donation, he was taken for a drive ‘at speed’ (he mentions twice) around the Monte Carlo Formula One circuit by…and here is the kicker…the local Ferrari Owners’ Club.
His weapon of choice was a Ferrari 348 TS. However he adds: ‘there was an Enzo there, but I think that was already booked’. The Ferrari Enzo is built on its lines; a draughtsman’s car, if you will.
Accelerating into the unknown while keeping his feet on the ground is a difficult task, but one Mr Webb is well practised at. All you have to do is find the most elegant way of getting from A to B.