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ICE president explores opportunities and challenges in the East Midlands and the South East

27 June 2023

During his visits, Keith Howells learned how regional projects are working to lower their carbon footprint.

ICE president explores opportunities and challenges in the East Midlands and the South East
ICE President Keith Howells visited these regions with some of his Future Leaders.

During the last couple of weeks, I visited the East Midlands and South East regions, accompanied by Future Leaders Svetlana Joao and Blake Scott for the latter, and Rohini Pattani for the former.

The East Midlands

I attended and spoke at the East Midlands Merit Awards and gala dinner, where Ed Bingham was an expert master of ceremonies.

Many of the projects awarded chimed with the institution’s themes, including repurposing/reuse of existing assets (rather than build new) and decarbonisation.

There were some great examples of innovative thinking.

During the afternoon, we held a round table discussion on the challenges facing the region in terms of transport, energy and flood management.

Participants included:

  • members of the regional committee;
  • local authorities;
  • the Environment Agency;
  • EDF; and
  • contractors and consultants, who recently formed the East Midlands Infrastructure Partnership to provide informed debate on the issues facing the region.

It was encouraging to learn of the wide range of initiatives being driven by local authorities to achieve net zero, with the City of Nottingham leading the way with its plans to become the UK’s first city to be carbon neutral by 2028.

The transport challenge

The East Midlands, mainly because of its geography and the small number of major urban centres, is very car dependent, with limited public transport services.

The prospects for major urban public transport schemes are limited and it’s likely that cars and buses will continue to be the dominant form of transport into the future, albeit using non-fossil fuels.

That said, efforts to encourage active travel and provide effective vehicle charging systems are clearly vital.

A lot of opportunities in energy

The region has a legacy of former coal-fired power stations, which provide opportunities for redevelopment.

It’s encouraging to hear that the STEP nuclear fusion project is to be built on the West Burton site in Nottinghamshire.

The historic presence of these former sites means that there are good connections to the electricity grid, which provide opportunities for other energy generation developments.

There is also further potential for off-shore and on-shore wind, as well as solar.

Mitigating flood risk

The region has issues with fluvial and coastal flooding, particularly to the east, with 20% of the area in ‘flood zone 2’.

Over 200,000 properties and 400,000 people are in flood risk areas, and apart from several urban centres, large areas of prime agricultural land are at risk.

Schemes such as the Boston Barrier have helped, but there’s clearly more to be done as the climate changes.

A big thanks to regional director Jo Barnett and the rest of the team for arranging the visit, as well as to regional chair, James Kirkham.

The South East

The visit to the South East started at the Dartford Crossing control room to learn about the Lower Thames Crossing.

Time spent in the control room clearly demonstrated the problems of serious congestion at the crossing and the need to provide relief, despite some very innovative systems for traffic management.

Much of the issue is the growth of freight, driven by proximity to the ports and Channel Tunnel, but also by the growth of internet shopping, with large warehouses continuing to be developed in the area.

The Lower Thames Crossing will provide relief but is facing the challenge of minimising its carbon footprint.

Huge efforts are going into this with extensive research ongoing into lean design, construction materials and fuels, with hydrogen likely to be a requirement for construction plant.

There are also significant efforts being made to deliver a project with significant bio-diversity gain.

Encouraging apprentices and technicians

Mid-Kent College was our next port of call, where we met with faculty members and students.

The college has a major focus on the education of technicians and apprentices through various day-release schemes.

It was encouraging to hear from some of the students how much they were enjoying working in the sector.

Sue Hawkes and Hannah Shewin-Friend made presentations to the students on their own careers and experience as technicians.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

After lunch we visited the Gallagher Group, a regional contractor that provides civil engineering groundworks, aggregates and ready-mix concrete.

We visited their quarry and batching plant, where huge efforts are going into reducing the carbon footprint.

This through the electrification of key plant, procurement of renewable energy, reduction of energy use, and product innovation, including optimising concrete mixes.

They also recycle demolition waste on the site and have developed a process for recycling hazardous waste by combining it with other materials for use as an aggregate product.

Both initiatives have reduced the amount of material being taken to landfill.

Restoration of the quarried areas is carefully done by an in-house ecological management team, with a clear focus on improving biodiversity.

One of the takeaways for me was the significantly lower carbon footprint of locally sourced aggregates, compared to those sourced from other parts of the UK or overseas – a point they are making strongly to the Lower Thames Crossing Team!

Transport and education

We ended the day with a round table discussion at the Commissioner’s House in the Chatham Historic Dockyards.

This was a two-part discussion on transport, then education.

We learnt from Kent County Council about the strategic issues facing the Kent Transport Networks.

These are driven by a growing population and the problems created by the increased processing time for lorries travelling between the UK and Europe post Brexit.

The impact of the Lower Thames Crossing was also discussed, including the consequent need for local road improvements to accommodate the changes in traffic flows.

The education part of the discussion focused on the need to encourage more school leavers into the profession, whether as technicians or engineers, and changes needed to the system between EngTech and IEng, as well Level 3 to Level 6 apprenticeships.

We also heard from the University of Greenwich about the challenges they face with attracting students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A big thanks to the ICE regional director, Katherine Etheridge, and her team, as well as the South East Committee members, for all the support they provided.

Also, to Mark Teeton, chair of the Kent and East Sussex Branch, for his exemplary organisation and time management - clearly demonstrating his military training!

  • Keith Howells, president 2022/23 at Institution of Civil Engineers