Working Lives

The Municipal Engineer (1950-1990)

Location: Norwich

Len worked in local government for nearly 40 years across the east and south of England bringing improved roads, water and sewage systems to local communities.

Starting out on my career

I left grammar school in July 1950 and I didn’t have a job to go to. The careers advice that I got in those days was not very good and the only thing the school could suggest was that I went into accountancy and worked in London. Well, my brother and father were working in London and actually spent the whole of their lives working up there. I didn’t like the idea of spending an hour to an hour and a half on the train each morning and night so I left school and started looking round at various things to do.

I got a temporary job in a local factory that manufactured furniture. I got into their design office and this gave me a tremendous amount of experience in draftmanship which, as you’ll see later, was very useful.

I managed to obtain work as a junior assistant in the engineers’ department of the local urban council. I had approached them fairly soon after I left school asking them if there were any openings, but it wasn’t until a couple of months later that I received information from them suggesting that they would be interested in offering me a position in the engineers’ department.

One of my brothers went into surveying after he left the services. I liked what he was involved in, but it was quite clear when I started looking into it, that I couldn’t get into surveying unless I went through technical college and got a qualification. That’s actually what my brother did.

So I went into the urban council and started working with them under the engineer and surveyor, who was a qualified municipal engineer. Shortly after starting I was told that there was a scheme the Institution of Municipal Engineers had started which allowed people to be trained for three years under one of their engineers and be designated as an engineering learner. The idea was that you obtain practical information and experience in the office, but that you studied for the Institution’s exams on your own.

I was liable for National Service when I was 18 and it was pointed out to me that if I wanted to study, as I obviously did, then they would give me a day off a week to go to a local technical college or for private study. So when I became 18 I got exemption – I mean deferment – from National Service because of this day off a week and I got that deferment for something like four years.

The scheme I entered into with the engineer was quite far reaching actually. It covered draftmanship, surveying and levelling – including all the usual instruments – and carrying out small surveys for housing estates and so forth. Plus all the other things that an urban council did, which in those days was quite considerable. They dealt with pretty well everything that a local authority was involved in, including town planning, building control or bylaws – building bylaws as it was in those days – and public utility street works. And an urban council in Essex was highly involved in private street works which was the making up of unmade roads that were laid out in early part of the 20th century in plot form and sold off individually to people. There was an awful lot of work to be done on that side and it proved to be very interesting.

I enjoyed all my job, though the studying side was difficult because the institute exams were set for various subjects and, whilst I could get time to go to the local technical college for certain things, they didn’t actually cover those subjects specifically. I had to do a pick and mix and the majority of the work was actually private study on my own. I did actually manage to find an organisation to do a correspondence course with which helped with a couple of the subjects. I started sitting the exams and I hadn’t completed the intermediate, as they called it in those days, by the time I decided to go for National Service in July 1956.

During that period I suppose I was a sort of apprentice. It was a good working environment; it was actually very enjoyable. Being a youngster and a junior of course I did all the basic jobs, but it was mainly assisting the other people in the detail of their work both on site and with drawings and plans. One of the jobs was going out and assisting which involved holding the end of the chain and holding the levelling staff, something I don’t think they do these days.

The techniques of surveying in the 1950s were different to what they are today. I mean in those days you had basic equipment. The most accurate work had to be done when we were involved in private street works because each frontager on the street had to pay a certain amount for the street to be made up. That involved measuring very accurately the frontage that the person had so the cost to them could be calculated. The measurement was done with a steel tape in those days – not a linen one – and when we came to working out the amount that the frontager should be charged I had the job of doing all the calculations. This involved multiplying a length – say 35 feet 7 inches by a rate of £3 2s 9d per foot. (Three pounds, two shillings and nine pence).

We didn’t have calculators. The only thing we had were books which assisted you in calculating, but it was a tedious business and you had to be accurate because the amount could be challenged in court and if you were wrong there were all sorts of problems. We never had any challenges though. No one did their own calculations. It was a bit beyond most people to do that. We had no challenges and we did quite a few streets.

Bearing in mind that the part of Essex we were working on was on London clay and the roads had no material on them apart from a few ashes, which people put on there, you can imagine what it is like when a lot of people are using vehicles in the winter. So I think the majority of people were quite happy to have their road made up and that they had to pay. The only problems that did arise that I can remember were people who had corner plots. Our council charged the full rate for the frontage to the main street that was being made up as well as the side road even though it was possible under the Private Street Works Act for that return frontage on the side road to be charged at a lower rate. That raised one or two problems at times, but there weren’t any challenges that I can remember. Obviously there weren’t so many vehicles around in those days. It was cycles and delivery vehicles. People having coal delivered, for example, heavy vehicles like that.

I very much enjoyed that part of my working life and learned a lot. We didn’t have a canteen or lunch vouchers or anything like that when I first started in 1951. The office we occupied was a separate building at the back of the main offices. The main offices were an old building which was occupied by other people than the urban council staff. I think the fuel overseer was in there in those days because fuel was still rationed, but we occupied this building at the back which consisted of an asbestos clad wooden lined building which was so cold in the winter that the water I had in containers for colouring print froze. The only heating we had was gas radiators and small ones at that. It was fairly spartan.

There was in those days the local government union. It’s now called Unison; I forget what it was called in those days. They didn’t really get involved too much. I think everybody was accepting of the conditions after the war and what they’d been through.

It was fairly formal in the office. You had to be reasonably well clad. You certainly had to wear a tie even when you were going out. The engineer and surveyor were actually in the main building, his deputy was with us in this building at the back and there were, I think, two in the drawing office and another chap in another room who was the administrative assistant. In the engineers side it was mainly men. The women tend to be in the other offices. I think the administrative side had a few women, but engineering was a closed door to women in those days.

National Service & returning to work

I decided, as I said, to do my National Service and I was called up to go into the RAF in June of ‘56. I was trained as a Ground Wireless Fitter and I spent about 20 weeks being trained. I was sent afterwards to various work and finished up in the Radio Engineering Unit in Henlow in Bedfordshire. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that prompted an interest for me and radio opened my eyes to a few things.

Because I had been called up the urban district council had to take me back afterwards. So at the end of my service I returned to the council and then of course I passed the intermediate exam at the Institution of Municipal Engineers so I had a step up in the organisation. This involved me in a little bit more responsible work and a slight increase in pay.

I did my own surveys then and I was involved in the design of a stylish sports pavilion in one of the recreation grounds, which stood until a few years ago. We did surveying for housing sites and I was also involved in the town planning aspect of the work. When people wanted to develop land in the area we had to keep a register and also maintain a large book of ordnance survey maps indicating where these applications were and the relevant reference numbers. Public street works’ applications were something that was important. That was where the electricity, gas or water people had to make application to the council if they wanted to dig up a road. I was also involved in building bylaws where people wanted to build properties and they had to apply to the council for permission. The plans were scrutinised and if okay were approved and then people had to go out and inspect the work at certain stages to make sure that it complied to the plans.

I think most people saw the regulations as a necessary evil. I think it was a question of the easiest route to get the job done. If you complained too much and started being awkward then you could find yourself in problems. People respected the local government in those days. One thing of course was that, as far as the council was concerned, party politics was not all that much to the fore in those days. It tended to be more the person doing a job for the constituents rather than for the party. There was a bit of it, but more so later in the urban council. There was a building boom and, to some extent, that depended on how easy it was to get planning consent.

During my time with the urban council we moved from that fairly spartan accommodation to a converted, I think mainly Georgian, building at the top of the High Street. When I came out of the RAF I was involved in an extension to that for a new council chamber and extra offices and they turned out to be rather pleasant offices to work in.

The attitude to listed buildings was very different then. They weren’t regarded in the same way as they are today. I think the majority of people were happy to see old buildings disappear and something new put in their place. I can remember particularly in the town there was a line of old Essex wooden houses including the smithy. They were all in that shiplap boarding, painted and rather pleasant looking places, but very close to a main road. They were all demolished to make way for a road widening, but there wasn’t a tremendous amount of objection to it. I think people were only pleased to see something new and there wasn’t that much of it actually because of the restrictions on materials after the war.

Restrictions were getting better though. Well, of course after the war you had problems with timber. In a house you were limited to a certain amount of timber you could use and, in fact, I think that went on until the mid ‘50s. But I think that was the main restriction. There wasn’t so much of a problem with bricks or cement.

There was a fair amount of council housing around that area, but council housing was not under the control of the engineer as such. They hired an external architect to do all that work.

Moving to a rural authority

I started looking for a step up in work and experience when I got this intermediate examination and I managed to find a position with a rural authority in Sussex. I managed to obtain work as a technical assistant and very luckily I found that something that I had developed an interest in while I was with the urban council – which was sewerage – was something they were doing in a big way. I helped finish off a scheme that had been started by one of the other assistants there and then I was put onto the surveying, design works and the supervision of the sewerage scheme for a couple of villages and the sewerage treatment plant.

We were connecting up villages and houses that hadn’t been on the mains sewage. The majority of them in that area either had septic tanks, cesspools or night soil – you know, the bucket at the end of the garden. It was a fairly prosperous area actually, but the two villages were separated by a river so it was quite an interesting job to sewer one and then pump everything across to the other side of the river to another pumping station, down to the other village and then down to the sewage works.

I didn’t have any role in the other services such as gas, electricity and telephones. Water was the only thing we were involved with and I was involved with, on the side. It wasn’t any design work as such, except for one small village up in the sort of South Downs area where we put up a small tank – like a small reservoir – to supply the village and then had to pump the water up from another smaller reservoir down near the main town. It was quite interesting because it was a question of how on earth to you make sure that you’re not overfilling the tank?

Because it was too far away there wasn’t a telephone connection or anything like that. In the end the engineer I was working with came up with the idea of employing the local civic defence people and they had a lovely time laying out a landline between the pumping station and the little reservoir so we could make sure our pumping station didn’t pump too much water. There was somebody sitting at the tank all the time waiting to see if it was going to overflow. We spent a whole day on it and it wasn’t all that big. We pumped water out to that small tank and they then told us when it had reached a certain level so we could calibrate the equipment at the pumping station.

My job was increasingly outdoors and I had contact with the people who were benefiting from the work. Some of them were a bit sceptical about when it was going to be done because they had experience, I think, in the past of the council saying ‘Oh we are going to do this’ and it probably never happened. As it happened I was involved in the survey work for our scheme to start off with and then I did the design, all the contract documents, we went out to contract and we chose the contractor to do the work. It turned out to be an Irish contractor, extremely hard working but unfortunately he had to pull off the site before he finished the work because I don’t think he was capable of carrying it out with the money he had.

So it had to be given to another contractor to finish the work and when that contractor came in he experienced the worst winter snow we’d had down there. That was ‘62 – ‘63 as I came up here in ‘65. It was a terrible winter and most contractors had had to stop work, but this particular contractor managed to keep working and laying sewers by taking the snow off the line of the sewer a short distance and then digging out the soil which hadn’t frozen at that time, laying the pipes and then to refill the trench he had to use a compressor to break up the soil. It was that bad. And I was out the whole winter on that.

Construction machinery was starting to come along, but in those days when you were doing work in villages it was mainly hand digging. You didn’t use machines through back gardens because of the amount of problems that you had with it – the disturbance. And also, bearing in mind that these were smallish villages, they didn’t have massive areas of land to go through. They were small gardens. So it was mainly hand digging. But anyway, he managed to keep going and he completed the contract and the scheme started working.

Later on I was involved on the design of a very large car park at the end of the main town, one end of which was mainly peat, with a causeway through the centre of it which went to some ruins. At the town end of this causeway was a large stone set of pillars with wrought iron gates and they had to be moved closer to the ruins so the whole lot could be cleared for the car park to be built. We were very lucky in that the county council were doing a big road improvement some miles out of the town and were worried about getting rid of all their material, which was mainly sand, so we had that and used it as filler for the whole of the car park. It was an interesting job to do.

I wasn’t fully qualified at that point. I was studying for the final exam and I manged to complete that in 1961 I think it was. Yes, autumn of 1961 I completed and passed the final. Then I was transferred to the Associate Membership of the Institution in 1962 and was also allowed to join the Institution of Public Health Engineers, which was important to me because the work I had been doing was mainly of a public health nature. After passing that final they gave me an improved salary and also I went up to Chief Assistant in that authority. That time we had an engineer and surveyor, a deputy engineer and surveyor and six assistants of which I was one.

Regarding how much autonomy local authorities had, so far as public health work was concerned – sewerage and sewage treatment – it was under the government’s control from a technical point of view. You had to submit the scheme to them and their engineers scrutinised it and came down and talked it over with you. You also, of course, had to make application to the government for a loan to pay for the works. But the government didn’t appear to have the control it has now. Planning of course – yes there were guidelines for that – a main Act under which you worked. You worked under the local building bylaws rather than the building regulations there are these days. Local authorities certainly had more scope in those days to do their own work.

I was climbing the career ladder and it was quite a good working environment. We changed offices by the time I left. There again it was a little building which was altered to hold the drawing office. We weren’t in the main offices as such. This was of course before the computer era. We had no calculators. Well, I think the mechanical calculator came in in those days – the one where you wound the handle – but we didn’t have one. It was all work with paper and brain. It was mainly a nine to five job. There wasn’t a lot of overtime. Of course in those days you worked really when the contractor worked and they tended not to do vast amounts of overtime.

Moving to Norfolk

So that was my spell in Sussex. Then I started looking for a step up again and I noticed that there were deputy engineer jobs going in Norfolk. And I applied for one with a rural council based in Norfolk and started with them in March 1965. This was mainly to carry out their sewerage work. They were very keen to have an inhouse organisation carry out the design and supervision of sewerage schemes. The majority of the area was served by night soil collection and cesspool emptying. Also I remember the night soil collection at one time was sent to people growing certain crops and it was spread on the land. It wouldn’t be allowed these days, but I think the crops are very good afterwards.

So I came up here and completed the work on a scheme for three villages – that’s an area scheme. Then I started work on the design of another area scheme for a further three villages, including a sewage treatment works. Bearing in mind that you’re dealing with scattered villages it meant that you had to pump. Norfolk being a relatively flat area you pumped from one village to the next or in combination with other villages to the treatment works. This raised a big problem and this is where my experience in the RAF came to the fore because I had been introduced to the radio and it occurred to me that what we needed was some sort of alarm system at pumping stations. This would trigger somebody to go there very quickly and see what the problem was because you can imagine if a pumping station fails you get real trouble with overflowing sewage and so forth. So I was involved in trying to find a system we could install in the pumping stations to provide this alarm system and radio was the ideal medium. We managed to find two manufacturers who were interested in doing it and eventually we had, I think, a Danish based company in this country who built the system for us which consisted of a VHF system with cassette recordings. The idea was that if the pumping station reached an alarm situation the little cassette would start working and would broadcast a message to say which pumping station it was and that there was an alarm situation there. It worked very well.

It was quite cutting edge for those days. I think at that time we were the third authority in the country to have an alarm system of some sort and certainly the first to have used radio systems in Norfolk, not only for alarms on pumping stations, but for communications. Not even the county council had that. I don’t know whether this sort of system is still in operation today, but I would think not because that type of system has almost certainly been phased out and they’ve gone onto very, very elaborate systems now which are much more reliable. It worked very well though. And of course we extended this system to include the workmen who had responsibility – the electricians particularly, the foreman who dealt with that side and sewage works manager as well. And we installed that in pretty well all the main pumping stations that we’d built.

The surveying and design techniques hadn’t changed that much by then from when I started work. We were getting, I think, the hand-cranked calculators, but we hadn’t reached the modern calculator stage. Surveying was the same; it was still pretty basic. I think it was really towards the end of my time in that office that things started to change dramatically. There were moves on the public utility side. I remember that the Women’s Institute started objecting vigorously to trenches being left untarmacked in the villages. We used to reinstate and provide a temporary reinstatement, which could be allowed to settle properly, but because the Women’s Institute were a bit upset about it we had to start putting tarmac on and of course this raised problems because when the tarmac settled you had to go out and do it again, which was a fairly costly job actually. I carried on with that type of work until the reorganisation of the lower government in 1974.

That was the beginning of public having a say on what we were doing. I can’t remember any other interest groups complaining or giving their opinion at the time, but people were beginning – well a certain number of people – to have the feeling that if a local authority were going to install sewers in their village, well it might happen or might not and they weren’t sure they were going to get connection to the sewer in a reasonable time. I think things went reasonably well. We didn’t have tremendous delays at all. It’s just that people were a bit impatient. It took time and you just had to accept the time lag of application to being agreed.

People nowadays talk about red tape, but it wasn’t really a delaying factor then because I think very, very rightly the government were having to lend you the money and they wanted to be sure that the engineering side was right and that’s why they had engineers to look and see what you’ve done or what you were going to do. It all seemed to work very well. I didn’t have any real trouble with the engineering side at all. I can only remember one case where one of the engineers asked me why I was doing a particular thing, which was the result of having to pump sewage a fairly long distance from one village to another and if you have sewage which is kept in the pumping main for some fair time it starts to go off. So what I was doing was trying to offset that problem and he hadn’t any answer to my question ‘Well, what better way is there of doing it?’

Our work tended to be limited to the areas of villages, which were mainly developed, rather than to outlying houses. Occasionally it was sensible to do farms, but in the main it was the envelope in which existing properties were based. So the farmers lost one of their sources of fertiliser without getting the benefit, though I think as time went on they would have had to lose it in any case because these days you wouldn’t be allowed to use sewage for fertiliser.

Local government reorganisation

By this time I was a chief officer and I enjoyed the job. I mean public health was something which I developed a real interest in and this was something where I could use my expertise. When we were reorganised after 1974 everything collapsed as far as staff were concerned. So far as sewerage schemes were concerned everything came to a grinding halt because Anglian Water came onto the scene and they took over responsibility for water and sewage. They didn’t really want to know local authorities. I suppose reasonably so, I mean it was an organisation and they didn’t want other organisations telling them what they should do. I think looking back at it all these years after the ‘74 change, it was a good thing because it brought into central control the design of things which ordinary councils weren’t capable of doing. They certainly couldn’t handle it these days, I don’t think. Anglia Water handled sewage and water and we lost everything.

What this meant for me personally was that I didn’t have any responsibility now for this public health side and my work tended to be more of a managerial status. We still had a direct labour force, something over two hundred, and they were involved in parks, gardens, maintenance and refuse collection. So I looked at the refuse collection side to see if there were any improvements I could make there. One thing I found was that we were having a tremendous amount of fly tipping, particularly of garden waste, because we’d gone onto the black sack system of collection, as distinct from the old collection from a dustbin, and that raised all sorts of problems. One of the big problems was the danger to the personnel collecting these bags. People would put things like broken glass, knives and things like that in them and when you pick up a black sack, and it’s reasonably heavy, it can hit your leg and you can get nasty injuries from that.

Being a manager was a very different job to the surveying and engineering. There was no training and it was question of, you know, just getting on with it. I think from the waste collection side one of my proposals which was accepted was the first wheelie bin system in Norfolk. This was purely to try and limit the amount of waste we had to collect from the side of the road. It worked for a time.

It was a tremendous improvement. One of the huge improvements from the council’s point of view was that they didn’t have to be involved in staffing the unloading of huge quantities of black bags at the depots every month and the staff hadn’t the worry of taking black sacks out with them when they were collecting. Yes, it raised some fresh problems – people didn’t like it because it was a change. You had the usual thing – you had an awful lot of complaints beforehand that things are not going to be right, you won’t do this, you can’t do that, but when it’s brought in and it’s working it all went quiet.

I was at the sharp end of introducing these new practices. Oh, it was stressful at times. The councillors saw that it was an improvement. We did quite well; quite pleased with it. And, of course, things have gone on from then. The councils have now extended the wheelie bin service quite substantially and it’s very good.

Making the decision to retire

I had other responsibilities. We still had the office to worry about. There was the attendance at committee meetings, which I attended instead of the surveyor. I did the public health committees, for example. And if the surveyor was away I had to go and take the committee on his behalf. But things were gradually winding down so far as I was concerned. And come 1990 I managed to get early retirement because the whole of the engineer and surveyor’s side had been virtually demolished, so really I saw that it wasn’t worth staying there as I couldn’t do the work that I wanted to.

I think if I’d been able to do the work I wanted to I would’ve stayed on, but I can’t see that it would ever have happened. Once Anglia Water took over the main responsibility for sewage treatment and so forth…

In a way losing my expertise that I’d built up over the years could be seen as a bit of a waste. There wasn’t really the opportunity to jump from local authority to the private sector in those days, though in 1974 they decided to appoint a surveyor, instead of an engineer and surveyor, and it went out to advertisement and people were interviewed. The person who was appointed to that didn’t come from within the authority; they came from outside. That upset one or two people quite a lot and so they left, quite rightly. It didn’t upset me dreadfully. The person who was appointed was an extremely nice person. I could have worked with him, no problems at all. He was from completely outside, no, I beg your pardon. He was from within local government and, after all, I have moved from one local authority to another

It wasn’t such a big thing. The only thing that he had that I hadn’t was a diploma from Loughborough University. That’s right, he was DIO I think they’re called. He was a very pleasant person and I thought this was going to be good and I can get on with him. Unfortunately after 3 months he came into my office and said ‘I’m leaving. I’ve been offered a position with the water authority. Where do you see your future? With the water authority or with local authorities?’ Well, I thought that I could’ve worked with him, but I made the decision to stay with the local authority and not to go the water authority route.

I don’t know if it would’ve been more money. That wasn’t discussed actually, but I think that with the reorganisations the water authority had since then, I probably would have been out after a year or two in any case. So I stayed on and come my birthday in August 1990 I retired. And then I decide what to do, don’t I? And it’s not work as such. I decide to do a university degree with the Open University. So I spend 5 years doing that and in the meantime I was talking to a person I knew who was involved in the public health side and he said ‘Well, why don’t you give me a CV and we can see what you’re like.’ But I didn’t because I was involved in the university studying at the time. What I was studying could have been relevant to my career as I kept on the environmental side of things and I got my degree after 5 years, but can’t use it.

Changes in working for a local authority since my retirement

I think there has been a tremendous change as far as local authorities are concerned in employing contractors. That’s government pressure of course. What remains in local government are fairly large organisations so you’ve got the idea of team working all the time and employing people in large rooms rather than small ones. In fact, the authority I worked for got out of the building I was employed in and built a new one and that was on the idea of having large open plan offices where people have computers and have got to put up with an awful lot of noise. There are problems with ventilation, working conditions, which you didn’t have in the smaller offices.

I very much retired before the computer age. They were bringing them in as I left, but I mean, had we still had responsibility for sewerage and design, there would have been considerable change there because all the design now is done on computers. And, in fact, surveying is completely different. You use electronic devices now in the field. You feed all the information into that device, you come into the office, plug it into a plotter and that thing plots out the survey you’ve done. It’s amazing really.  No way could I use one. No, it’s really a young person’s job now, to be trained as you progress.

Len (b. 1934) talking to WISEArchive in Taverham Norfolk  on 27th May 2015.

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