Peggy Seeger famously sang about the struggle to be taken seriously as a woman wishing to pursue a career in engineering. Her world was full of misplaced prejudice and the belief women were put on this earth just to be wives and mothers.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that – but it certainly wasn’t for me. I never married and have no children being too self-centred and career-orientated to be any good at matrimony – or motherhood for that matter.
In all honesty, I’d have left on the bus any baby luckless enough to have me as a mother. On the other hand, my brother is a natural with young people and his children are a credit to the happy, safe and supportive environment he and my fabulous sister-in-law have created.
If only every child was so lucky.
January is a bitter month in many ways. Festive cheer has been cleared away with the tinsel and baubles. It’s cold and Spring seems a distant hope. But the lesson of the Christmas story doesn’t end with Twelfth Night. As I recall it, a skilled tradesman, his girlfriend and new baby fled in terror to Egypt with – as might have been defined by the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees – a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’. They needed a home and sanctuary. Just as people in Britain today – be the newcomers to our country or in need of support closer to home – deserve a place of their own.
It got me thinking. The construction industry, many of whose professionals I have the privilege to support as the chief executive of the Association for Project Safety, may not be able to provide children with love and security but they can do something about building the houses needed for happy homes to grow.
It’s not just the homelessness we witness on the streets of our cities and towns. Many people do not have the luxury of turning the key in their own door at night, and find themselves bedding down in temporary accommodation or kipping in the spare rooms or sofas of friends and family.
Shelter Scotland rightly says homelessness is not fixed, estimating that every 19 minutes families like yours and mine become homeless with, in the month of November, 3250 in temporary accommodation. This included 6,041 children. It hardly gets anyone off to the best start in life.
Both the Scottish and UK governments acknowledge the need for more housing with Scotland aiming for 50,000 new homes for social use by 2021. The shift needed nationally is breathtaking but, wearing my APS hard hat, I’d rather the breakneck pace needed didn’t turn out to be just that.
As Dame Judith Hackett’s interim review of fire and building regulations, commissioned after the Grenfell Tower tragedy, pointed out, we need to streamline building regulations so they are fit for purpose while ensuring everyone involved in construction has the skills and education to balance speed with a ‘safety first’ approach.
The country needs to skill up to deliver – at speed and in safety – the homes, roads and railways we need. So, any focus on what’s needed is very welcome. At APS, we try to do our bit by providing lifelong learning opportunities for our members and other professional colleagues. But, it’s not enough alone and not something you can just take down off the shelf. Luck, time and an alignment of the stars are against us.
There is a persistent bias against practical education in favour of the academic approach. Worries over the world post-Brexit are causing people to think twice about Britain as a workplace destination. And then there’s the fragility of the financial confidence needed for major projects even to get off the drawing-board. It is hard to see how we’re going to gear up. But what’s all of this to do with Peggy Seeger?
Well, 2018 has been designated by the government as the Year of Engineering. Her anthem can still challenge the ongoing lack of women following a scientific career path. I worry my niece is the only girl in her year to be studying computer coding – that’s disgraceful and worse than my own university experience in the early 1980s. Seeger’s eponymous female engineer needs encouragement – whether she wants to work in construction or space exploration.
But, if we truly want to house people in dignity and safety, the UK cannot afford to neglect the skills of just over half of its population.
Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety.