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Interview Andy Mitchell, Tideway build up

To relax, Andy Mitchell has got into paddle boarding. It’s an evolution from triathlons, which the Tideway chief executive recounts he first got into while working on the Thameslink programme.

Later, during his time on Crossrail, he cycled 885km over five days travelling from Carlisle to Land’s End.

But now it is paddle boarding, and it is relevant.

With some of the Tideway team he has recently finished a paddle board half marathon along the River Thames from Kew to Southwark – and he only fell in once.

“In three-and-a-half hours, I don’t think that was bad,” he recounts. “But there’s a really good reason not to fall in the river, which is what we’re trying to address,” he says.

Chambers wharf 41

Chambers wharf 41

Costain Vinci Grands Projets and Bachy have developed an electrically powered hydrofraise rig to cut down on noise on one site

That reason is the 39M.t of combined sewage overspill currently flowing into the Thames each year. Tideway, an ambitious 25km tunnel snaking through London from Acton in the west to Abbey Mills pumping station in the east, will help the ageing sewer network cope with London’s 8M inhabitants.

For someone running such an enormous project, surely there has to be a better way to relax. Why does Mitchell tackle these marathons?

“I’ve found typically on these jobs, I have to set myself some sort of challenge,” he says.

This attitude could help explain why Mitchell publicly announced he would shave two years off Tideway’s construction time, which raised eyebrows across the industry. It would mean that instead of taking seven years to construct and finishing in 2024, the £4.2bn (2014 prices) Tideway could be up and running as early as 2022. It was an ambitious target, set because it would make Tideway cheaper for bill-payers, a better neighbour to the communities around each construction site, and it would clean up the Thames quicker.

A theme I think that we’ve set from the beginning on Tideway is: ‘What is the very best we can do?

Although construction started between four and six months ahead of schedule on the three main drive sites – the west, central and east sections – problems such as contaminated land and uncharted foundations, which Mitchell describes as “the normal stuff that you find when you dig a hole in London,” have appeared. Meanwhile, the start of tunnelling, a major milestone for the project, has been pushed back from this year to spring 2018.

But Mitchell says Tideway is still on track to finish between a year and two years early; and there is still time for innovation on the project. In the east, a new electrically powered hydrofraise diaphragm walling machine has been developed by the eastern section’s Costain, Vinci Construction Grands Projets and Bachy Soletanche joint venture.

A Dragon’s Den-style competition was run internally to encourage Tideway teams to bid for funding for a bright idea or invention. Meanwhile barrier-busting personal protective equipment has been developed, by a Muslim employee called Leena Begum, who created work clothing for women who wear a hijab or a burka – in the Tideway colours, of course.

“A theme I think that we’ve set from the beginning on Tideway is: ‘What is the very best we can do?’” asks Mitchell.

Pushing for excellent

It is a question woven into each big campaign on Tideway. Not content with a very good safety record, Mitchell is pushing for excellent. A magnified focus on health, safety and wellbeing on the project is wrapped up in RightWay, a programme to help Tideway achieve no major injuries or fatalities.

Before anyone sets foot on site they undertake a day-long training session at the Employer’s Project Induction Centre (EPIC). Actors take participants through realistic scenarios in a day designed to pack a powerful emotional punch, shocking people into behaving safely. So far almost 10,000 employees have taken the training.

But there has been a challenge from the leaders in the supply chain. Despite insisting everyone takes an EPIC day, Mitchell concedes that only so much can be controlled.

“They [supply chain leaders] may not be in the same place we are, and I can see that there could be times when we might have won the hearts and minds of the people on site, but they are also influenced by their hierarchy, whoever that is, that we can’t necessarily get at.”

For that reason Mitchell is looking for the supply chain to get 100% behind the scheme.

“I think you’ve got to go right back to basics. What do I want? I want the job delivered safely, we all do. We’re trying to show as a client we really mean that and we really want to play our role, but of course the whole supply chain has to want that too.”

We have to find ways of it being possible to work less hours but be doing serious jobs

Mitchell is clearly a leader who is driven by a desire for change. He describes himself as inquisitive and creative, unable to resist the lure of asking: “What happens if I do this?” He says change is one of the most important things in most industries, and particularly in construction.

And yet there are points of frustration. Despite publicly pledging a 50/50 gender split in the project team by the end of the scheme, it is currently stalled on 37%. Having tried all the usual methods to address it such as flexible working, non-male wording in job adverts and gender bias training, the Tideway team will now tackle the industry’s perceived poor work-life balance.

Mitchell offers 30-hour weeks, job sharing and nine-day fortnights as possible solutions.

“We have to find ways of it being possible to work less hours but be doing serious jobs,” he says.

For a man obsessed with action, he unsurprisingly comes across as being frustrated with the slow pace of change in an industry which is “very good at writing reports”. Part of that is borne out in his involvement with Project 13. It is an ICE initiative set up under its Infrastructure Client Group (ICG), of which Mitchell was, until last month, chair. As work on Tideway is ramping up something had to give, so Mitchell decided to step down from this post.

Project 13 for collaboration

Project 13 is trying to get the industry to become more collaborative and productive, moving from a transaction-based relationship to a model with more investment in long-term outcomes in infrastructure.

While the client-led initiative is leaning on the industry to bring about change, Mitchell explains that the government should also overhaul its “lowest cost wins” attitude to procurement and provide more support for innovation in the industry.

“We are as good as anyone in the world and I would argue increasingly better than an awful lot of other people at this whole engineering thing,” he says, adding that well-trained engineers could offer a good export opportunity for the UK.

Mitchell has also been working closely with several industry groups on putting together a sector deal, a pitch for investment as part of the government’s Industrial Strategy. More of his time will be taken up with the innovation group Infrastructure Industry Innovation Platform (I3P) as he has agreed to chair the body. But most of it  will be focused on Tideway itself. “We know the role we are playing,” he concludes.

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