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English Bridges and English Muffins

(Article published in the Oct 3,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)    

The British Embassy's description of Mabey and Johnson, that was issued by Her Majesty's Ambassadors, both addressed to the Philippine Government, as "the sole United Kingdom manufacturer and supplier of prefabricated panel style steel bridges" by Paul Dimond in 2004 and by Peter Bekingham in 2005 as "the sole United Kingdom manufacturer and supplier of pre-fabricated modular steel bridges" could have easily passed off as no more than routine endorsements by an embassy of the products of its home country to its host.

Let us disregard for a moment (even if a suspicious reader were to sense the possibility of a single author) the nearly uniform description of the offered steel bridges. For Dimond, the product was "panel style steel bridges" and, for Bekinghan, it was "modular steel bridges."

What is more arresting is the use of the word "sole" by both Dimond and Beckingham.

The word "sole" is not an idle adjective. On the contrary, describing the Mabey and Johnson as the "sole manufacturer and supplier" serves the important function of removing from the UK government's process of assessing the suitability of a product to the buyer the best practice requirement in the conduct of public works, namely public bidding. After all, if there is only one supplier, who else could offer the same product at a better price?


The British Government, favours and rightly so that, whenever possible the selection of the supplier be done through public bidding. The summary of the matters taken up in a meeting, held way back in 1996, between UK's delegation headed by Adrian Davis of the British Overseas Development Administration (ODA) and the Philippine Panel headed by Assistant Director-General Augusto B. Santos of the National Economic Development (NEDA), affirms this British bias for public bidding. The summary, in part, said: "All projects proposed for British financing shall be subjected to a national competitive bidding in the UK...Should there be only one British supplier with the capability to undertake a Philippine project, the British Government shall issue an official certification indicating such case."

This need to issue an official certification from the British Embassy, in the event of only one capable supplier, accounts for the letters to our Government from the highest officials of their mission, first from Dimond and then Beckingham regarding Mabey and Johnson. What was being foisted upon us, poor Filipinos, is that the according to the UK gentlemen, only one British supplier could provide the bridges we wanted. Hence, "a national competitive bidding in the UK" was not conducted. Mabey and Johnson, was therefore, it.

This unanimity of Dimond and Bekinghman on the singularity of Mabey and Johnson, as sole manufacturer and supplier of bridges, did not jibe, however, with what Her Majesty's Embassy told the Philippine Government less than five years earlier. Writing to Jose T. Pardo, then Secretary of the Department of Finance, United Kingdom's Deputy Mission Head David Campbell boasted:

"Britain has long expertise in bridge construction. British companies such as Balfour Kilpatrick Limited remain at the cutting edge of British design and technology. I can confirm that Balfour Beatty Power Networks Limited is the sole UK supplier of the Callender-Hamilton unit Construction Bridging System which I understand has been under discussion with the Department of Interior and Local Government. The use of such bridges, whose distinctive qualities are unlike any other supplied from the UK, is endorsed by the British Government..."

So, where was the deception when Campbell talked of Callender-Hamilton Bridges and Dimond/Beckingham talked of "panel" or "modular" bridges?

Good old dependable Wikipedia unfortunately for the Brits tells us that the Callender-Hamilton unit Construction Bridging System was designed by New Zealand civil engineer A. M. Hamilton in 1935. He was inspired, continues Wikipedia, "by his work between 1928 and 1932" when he "became aware of the need for strong, adaptable bridges made from simple components that could easily be transported and erected in remote locations or on difficult terrain."

The Callender-Hamilton bridge system, continues Wikipedia, "is a prefabricated Panel/Floor Beam/Deck system designed to span bridging lengths ranging from 30 to 150 metres with road widths of one to three or more lanes."

Ah, so. Both Callender-Hamilton bridges and Mabey and Johnson bridges are "panel" type bridges. The same banana.

So, if Callender-Hamilton bridges are also prefabricated panel systems, then they do not essentially differ much. Hence, I ask: What then precisely makes them different from Mabey and Johnson's panel style or modular steel bridges? The cost of construction per linear meter? The ease of putting them up, in terms of time and expertise needed by the engineers and their workers? Their adaptability to varying terrain and vulnerability (or resistance) to changes in temperature and/or weather?

For many in the know, both are essentially truss bridges. Hence, the Callender-Hamilton bridge is as different from the Mabey and Johnson bridge in the same way that the English muffin of Starbucks is different from the English muffin of the Village Gourmet. Both muffins, my palate says, are boring. Perhaps because English.

Assuming then that my knowledge of engineering is anywhere near the discrimination of my taste buds, why was there an obvious attempt on the part of Her Majesty's mission in the Philippines to describe the two bridges differently? Why did Dimond and Beckingham not candidly state that the Callender-Hamilton's of Campbell is the same as their Mabey and Johnson's?

Moreover, why was there a change in the identity of the Queen's (or, more precisely Her Majesty's emissaries') fair-haired bridge boy? It is possible that there was a local boy here who made the difference? If so, how much was made?

I am not Professor Higgins; but I'd love to hear the English speak come the Senate Investigation next week