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Geoff French: Upping the ante

Mega floods, mega projects and mega cities - Geoff French has seen them all in his year in office as ICE President. He reflects on the most memorable moments of an extraordinary year with Mark Hansford.

Helicopter ride over Hong Kong? Standing in the new Panama Canal locks? Wandering through three Crossrail tunnels? Taking a look at the new Queensferry Crossing? How do you pick a favourite out of a list like that?

You can’t, says ICE President Geoff French, reflecting on the more memorable moments of a year in office.

“There are just too many to mention,” he says “And everywhere you go, the quality of the people you meet and the projects you visit - it’s all awesome.

“And even the care being taken with smaller schemes like flood defence projects - even though the solution might be simple - the sensitive way they are being delivered - it’s outstanding,” he says.

“The fact that we have done so well at coaxing extra capacity out of what we have means that a lot of the relatively easy things have been done”

Geoff French

That Hong Kong helicopter ride does stand out though. “Hong Kong is one huge monument to engineers,” he observes. “It’s just fantastic, and just a reminder of how fast it’s been done there,” he says, reflecting that when he lived and worked in Hong Kong 34 years ago you could gaze across to the paddy fields on the Chinese mainland. “That’s now the city of Shenzen,”he states.

“A city of 10M people. That’s quite stark, the speed at which that has happened,” he says.

Geoff French

On site: French at Canary Wharf Crossrail station

And it’s a message that should not be lost on policymakers close to home, stresses French.

“Britain is set to be home to 10M more people by 2050; London’s population is forecast to increase by 2M over the same time frame. It’s as big a population growth leading directly to infrastructure need that I have seen in a lifetime in engineering,” he says.

“The fact that we have done so well at coaxing extra capacity out of what we have means that a lot of the relatively easy things have been done,” he notes. “Which is why the schemes we need now are so big,” he says, citing Crossrail, Crossrail 2, High Speed 2, High Speed 3 and the Thames Tideway Tunnel. “So there is a real challenge to keep infrastructure up there on the political and public agenda,” he states.

Highs and lows of a year in office

Best achievement

“’The State of Nation’ report. It was very pleasing that Treasury minister Lord Deighton, although he could not be there at the launch, invited Keith Clarke and myself over for a meeting for an hour and a half to discuss the content. I think we have moved well in terms of our engagement with government.

Most memorable moment

Too many to mention: everywhere you go, the quality of the projects and the people you meet is awesome.

Biggest regret

One thing I might have pushed more from day one is the sustainability agenda. It is a word that is so well defined that people think that they have got it. But we are still behaving as if we have more than one world’s resources to draw on. That point has to become more and more to the fore.

Best visit

That Hong Kong helicopter ride.

Most proactive region

I’m not answering that. But I would say that the ICE’s structure and that of the structure of the UK makes the lines of communication to government easier in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland. In England it is more difficult as our structure is fragmented, so I’ve been encouraging the ICE in English regions to engage more with the Local Enterprise Partnerships.

Most inspiring person he’s met

I’m not answering that either. But the most inspiring group of people would have to be the young engineers; and more than the young engineers as a whole, the young female engineers. They have come into the profession having made a clear career choice and they are just outstanding and great role models.

Top tip

Simple. Meet as many young people as you can as they energise you hugely.

Engineering Happiness video:

I think its great. It demonstrates the different ways of engaging with the public. We have got to keep trying lots of different ways.

And then there’s the other big driver for infrastructure need - climate change and the increasingly extreme weather that it threatens to bring. During French’s tenure, Britain has had a real shot across the bows.

“Addressing flood risk is a big challenge,” he notes. “People don’t appreciate engineering until it isn’t there and with the effect of the winter storms - the flooding, the severing of road and rail links - people got an impression of what it is like when it is not there.

“You don’t need to remind the people of New York, New Orleans, Fukushima or the Philippines of what happens when infrastructure is deficient in terms of flood risk,” he emphasises. “Our job is to make sure that these issues are raised,” he says.

And for that reason French is full of praise for ICE vice president Keith Clarke and the team behind this year’s State of the Nation report. He’s firm that it is the “best one we’ve published”.

Real priorities

And the reason? “It started to address the real priorities and challenge what we are prepared to pay to protect infrastructure in the event of extreme storms,” he states. “Are there serious transport arteries that need protecting? And what about the others?”

French reflects on the media storm that surrounded the flooding on the Somerset Levels and compares it to the Lincolnshire town of Boston, where far more people were flooded.

Boston was struck just before the death of Nelson Mandella, which dominated the headlines the next day.

Meanwhile, knee-jerk reactions to the flooding in Somerset and along the River Thames in Surrey and Berkshire were a feature of the time, with hysterical media
reporting, political grandstanding and even the Army drafted in to shift sandbags and project an air of authority that was perceived to be lacking.

Forth river Crossing visit

French visit the Forth Replacement Crossing

“It showed even more than before of the need for government to see us - the ICE - as a source of advice,” he reflects.

The winter storms did, of course, provide engineering with its true moment to shine - with the rapid reinstatement of the railway line through Dawlish winning plaudits far and wide.

“Everybody was impressed at the speed with which it was put right, especially as the engineers solved a much bigger problem than the public realised,” notes French, referring to the additional work that was done to repair and stabilise a major landslip a short distance down the line from the very visible works at Dawlish station.

Indeed, he thinks, in hindsight, that the profession “missed a bit of trick” in telling the world just how clever the engineering had been.

But that just goes to show how far the profession has moved on, and in one remarkable year, it has moved on a lot.

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