"Boots on the ground" engineers make policy decisions a reality

Aneeka Barmi, Sub-Agent at Skanska and 2020 James Rennie Medal Finalist, reflects on the impact of policy on the day-to-day role of civil engineers.

Turning policy into action.
Turning policy into action.
  • Updated: 29 April, 2021
  • Author: Aneeka Barmi MEng CEng MICE, James Rennie Medal Finalist

I know it might sometimes be hard to feel a connection to the House of Commons when in the middle of a concrete pour, or think about the decades of infrastructure strategising that might have led to you setting out the first run of a drainage alignment; but all infrastructure projects are a result of the policy decisions by ministers. From my role as a Sub-Agent for the construction company Skanska, I have come to realise that politics and civil engineering are inextricably linked.

Understanding how policy commitments are made

I first became interested in this relationship when trying to contextualise my own experiences on England’s A14 Improvement Scheme. As I outlined in my James Rennie Medal Final 2020 presentation, I was responsible for creating a system of dewatering to abstract and recycle 7,000 cubic metres of groundwater within the site boundary.

This proposal was initiated by my colleagues years earlier, and would enable safe and sustainable excavation of the materials required to build the scheme. In fact, I learnt that it was one of the reasons the scheme won approval from the UK’s Secretary of State in the form of a ‘Development Consent Order’. This is the decision-making process, set out in the UK Planning Act, that is often used to green light infrastructure projects of national significance and maintain fairness for affected communities.

As engineers we focus on the programme ahead, but do we truly understand how policy commitments are made and how we can use them to contribute to the continuous improvement of our industry?

How complying with policy helps to drive on the ground decisions

In my current role, working for Skanska Costain STRABAG Joint Venture (SCS JV) on Phase One of HS2, I am required to comply with ‘Environmental Minimum Requirements’ and ‘Undertakings and Assurances’. These are commitments that were made to the public and set out in law when the project received approval in UK Parliament.

Although these policies may seem theoretical, compliance with these has led to me choosing non-percussive piling methods to minimise noise disturbance to communities close to my site. I’ve also worked to design and sequence highway works to minimise road closures and consequent disruption to traffic and local businesses. Policy decisions are made by ministers, but it is a combined effort from those with ‘boots on the ground’ to make these a reality.

The UK Government is major infrastructure’s largest client, which goes some way to explaining the impact of policy in civil engineering. But could it go further? Climate change is a pressing issue for our industry and civil engineers everywhere are rising to this challenge. Whilst the Government certainly recognises this, with cross-party support for a ‘green recovery’ as we emerge from COVID-19 and the Prime Minister’s recent Ten Point Plan for a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, what more can we do to realise this political ambition?

How many times has the long-term cost benefit and green outcomes of an innovation come second to its short-term cost in your experience? Or how many times has a ‘paperless technology’ initiative been rolled out, only to be reverted when the teething problems become too challenging to deal with?

Closing the loop – turning policy intent into action

I once worked on a structure where we attempted to utilise a concrete mix with a high proportion of Ground Granulated Blast Furnace Slag (GBBS). GGBS can be used as a binder, like cement, however it releases much less carbon in the manufacturing process. Whilst this seems like the natural choice in terms of sustainability, a concrete mix with these components takes a longer time to cure than traditional cement mix.

In my case, these curing periods would have added weeks to the construction programme. Countless conversations and life cycle assessments later, the decision to opt for this mix was never confirmed due to concerns for programme and cost.

From my experience the objectives are there, but unless policy and industry work together to balance ‘traditional’ priorities, such as a cost and programme, alongside emerging priorities and the financial and practical tools in major project management, the impact will never be actualised to its full potential by civil engineers. The size of HS2, coupled with its focus on innovation and new ideas to evolve our industry, creates the perfect platform to achieve this.

I know that I became a civil engineer for the same reason many become politicians; a determination to serve the needs of society. Is there more we could be doing to align our goals? How engaged are you with the political frameworks that govern the projects you work in?

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