Worlds’ first research Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment, here in the North East

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

It was recently announced that Northumbria and Newcastle University had been jointly awarded £8million to create the worlds’ first research Hub for Biotechnology in the Built Environment (HBBE).

Experts from both universities will develop new technologies to revolutionise how buildings are constructed and how they operate. By bringing together architects, engineers and bio-scientists the aim is that they can work towards developing sustainable materials and architectural structures which are responsive to the natural environment, grown using living engineered materials, process their own waste, reduce pollution, generate energy and support a biological environment that benefits health.

HBBE, which launched earlier this month, comprises of a micro design lab (based in Northumbria) and a macro bio-design lab (based at Newcastle) which will allow students to develop new technologies; from environmentally friendly molecules to materials. The hub also includes The OME, an experimental house where students will be able to test their research. This is what I’m most excited about, by giving students a place to implement their findings in a real-life setting the successful materials and systems will be ready to use immediately. It won’t be a case of months of hard work only to find out they don’t work when applied to real situations.

Research conducted through the HBBE is categorised by three themes:

  • Building Metabolism – which aims to develop a new generation of microbial technologies that will act as building metabolisms – processing waste and generating energy and useful products.
  • Living Construction – which will foster a new generation of bulk-engineered living materials that are intelligently synthesised and activated using microbial processes.
  • Microbial Environments – where the objective is to better understand and computationally predict the interaction between the built environment and microbes and to cultivate healthy environments.

The fund has been awarded from Research England’s Expanding Excellence in England (E3) Fund, made available through the modern Industrial Strategy. The original modern Industrial Strategy green paper stated that the government would only work with those sectors that were willing to help themselves and I think we’ve certainly shown that we are, and we’ve been rewarded for that. We’re wanting to change and move in the right direction and the fund is only going to support that. For a while now the industry has been taking responsibility in how we work and putting more effort into tackling the climate crisis. The current construction of buildings is unstainable due to its carbon footprint given that the built environment currently contributes 40% to the UK’s carbon footprint.

I’m so happy we’re looking at new building methods, new materials and technologies, all of which will have a positive impact on the environment, and I’m even happier that the latest research is happening here, in the North East.

Engineering in the North East

Guest blog by Kevin Byrne, Managing Director of Seymour Civil Engineering Contractors Ltd

Kevin Byrne, Managing Director of Seymour Civil Engineering, believes that the North East is the definitive birthplace of modern engineering and it is here that engineering has made the most impact. Not just on our region but on the world itself. We spoke to Kevin about what makes the North East of England such an important area and what we can do to ensure that heritage continues.

“The North East’s background and history in engineering is probably one of the strongest in the world. Some of the finest engineers came from the North East; including Sir William Armstrong, inventor of high-pressure hydraulic machinery who revolutionised the design of guns and George Stephenson, the ‘Father of Railroads’.

The region has a massive history of civil, mechanical and electrical engineering. It was synonymous with quality shipbuilding and the steel industry, and saw the design, build and export of some of the world’s most famous bridges, the most famous being Sydney Harbour Bridge. You can see the massive input this region has had on the world’s infrastructure.

Engineering has had an undeniable effect on the North East, but most people who have never visited the North East won’t understand that.

It is a fabulous place with a terrific infrastructure that is still being improved upon. The quality of life and work/life balance in the region is fantastic. We have a beautiful countryside and it is serviced by a massive and robust infrastructure.

Seymour has recently been involved in a major engineering project in the region which aims to assist the local economy, the A19 Silverlink Roundabout. A triple decker roundabout that will aim to alleviate a lot of congestion and allow the ports to take in a lot more traffic. Seymour’s role was to install £8m highway and kerb drainage on the scheme on behalf of Sisk Lagan

The future is bright for the region. There is fabulous technology being developed in the North East and we’re now looking at developing advanced manufacturing and turning Teesport, the third largest port in the UK, into a freeport.

The North East is, as far as I’m concerned, looking at a renaissance and to avoid using the B word. I believe the region can be a beneficiary of the outcome of our exit from Europe as we will be able to compete and bring engineering and manufacturing home.

We as a civil engineering company, can see that a lot of manufacturing organisations will need infrastructure, buildings, premises and laydown areas and we see this as a market trend that we’re ready to take advantage of.

Engineering has had an impact on the economy of the region, as it has an effect on any economy around the world.

A lot of people don’t know what engineering is or even notice it until something goes wrong and it’s often overlooked as everyone takes it for granted.

I’ve worked in the North East since 1989, after moving across from Lancashire, and the one piece of engineering in the region I regularly go to is the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead which crosses the Tyne. It’s a fantastic piece of engineering which was cleverly done. It was manufactured five or six miles down the river and put into place by possibly the largest lifting barge in the world back then.

From a purely engineering point of view, that was a very prestige job. It’s iconic of the Newcastle/Gateshead connection and over the years I’ve seen Newcastle grow from being a working dock to what it is now, a centre of excellence in terms of working space, leisure and housing.

The region has had some terrific pieces of engineering, another of which would be the Angel of the North, built in Hartlepool, but I think there are also quite a few jobs which are not quite as iconic but are just as vital.

These are the sea defence jobs and sewage facilities that are often buried, and no one would even know they are there. However, without them there would be flood issues and less than attractive places to live.

So, while I am aware of those jobs – the public wouldn’t necessarily give them a second thought.

I often point out the sports fields in the region to people and they ask me why I find them fascinating. For me, it’s not the fields themselves but rather what’s under them which is absolutely terrific.

Hidden engineering is all around us and without it, things would be very different indeed.

The North East has obviously experienced somewhat of a decline over recent years which has resulted in workers re-educating themselves. The region is now a hotbed of cutting edge advanced manufacturing, technology and offshore wind farming. I honestly believe that the North East is far better than what the ratings would ever give it.

The fact that we have five top class universities with world leading programmes means we have a massive education facility for the development of people in the North East, that is second to none.

I believe post Brexit, as manufacturing comes back, the North East will develop technologies that will be exportable throughout the world and I honestly believe that, whilst there is always room for improvement, the North East is a lot more advanced than what we give ourselves credit for.

Ideally, we need to move people away from large metropolitan areas – in order to do that we need to improve transport links and we have to get the lifestyle facilities in different parts of the UK to make it desirable for commuters. That issue falls with us in the engineering sector.

The North East has always produced the best engineers in the world. We took the railways abroad, we took the canals abroad, the power stations, infrastructure, shipbuilding and bridgebuilding. We have the talent, the generations, the feedstock and the bloodline.

Let’s carry on doing what we do best.”

CAN to launch intelligent procurement campaign

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Following a recent workshop with its committee, Construction Alliance NorthEast (CAN) is launching a campaign to promote intelligent procurement. CAN wishes to clarify its position on what intelligent procurement means and the benefits it would deliver for the region, if adopted.

CAN was established in 2016 to create more of a level playing field for regional SME contractors when tendering for work. It was formed after the recession because many SME construction companies had been badly affected by the use of single-sourced frameworks, which excluded many from tendering – either because their turnover was too low or because they were unable to demonstrate enough similar projects.

Through intelligent procurement, CAN seeks to create a common-sense approach to tendering.  Its values relate to three aspects of ‘local’:

  • local money being spent with regional companies to ensure regional investment
  • local companies being placed at the heart of supply chain strategies to facilitate more sustainable employment opportunities – particularly for young people
  • local growth, which will follow when regional productivity increases

Local companies need more clarity about future pipelines of work to be confident about taking on more trainees and apprentices who can then develop to become the managers of the future. With the local agenda in clear view, CAN is working relentlessly with regional procurement bodies – recently we reported on its success with NEPO to raise awareness about the talent which can be found within the North East construction industry.

As one of its aims, CAN is promoting the use of selected tender lists featuring local companies, as an alternative to single-sourced frameworks and is looking for strategic support from the leaders of local public and private organisations across the North East, including their formal endorsement of intelligent procurement. The wider regional supply chain must also adopt this approach so that the right company is awarded the right job – a horses for courses approach; the use of local providers of technical skills, services and products needs prioritising, more effective collaboration is to be encouraged, the widespread adoption of digital technologies embraced, the development of processes and people re-evaluated and issues surrounding payment terms, project bank accounts and retentions resolved.

CAN is keen to work with local procurement bodies to better understand their issues and together look at better and fairer ways of procuring construction projects in the North East. While CAN undoubtedly has a massive job on its hands to effect these changes and deliver on its promise of ‘Constructing the Region’ – if successful, the North East construction industry has a bright future ahead of it.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

The Whey Aye wheel – what will it add to the North East?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Last week, plans were approved to build the Whey Aye wheel on Newcastle Quayside. The Whey Aye will be Europe’s tallest observation wheel, standing nearly 140m high – 5m taller than the London Eye.

The original planning proposal for the wheel was for 10 years, but it’s been granted permanent planning permission. It’s expected to attract an additional 261,000 visitors to the city each year – generating almost £15m for the economy. The wheel will be built at Spillers Wharf, on the River Tyne. This site has been derelict since 2011 and I fully support it being brought back to life, but I’m not sure yet about the proposed plan. This project, and many others send out a powerful message about the ambition of the North East. Too often we’re forgotten about, with projects that could benefit us never making it out of London. We’re constantly working to improve the region and it’s about time we showed the world the North East we all know and love. There are already so many things to be proud of and significant projects like this seek to raise the profile of the North East.

It seems I’m not the only one with reservations about the plans, which aren’t fully supported by everyone in the region. Many people think the wheel will look cheap, nasty and add nothing to the city whilst others fear the loss of the Ouseburn, seen by many as a unique community.

The project will form the centrepiece of The Giants on the Quayside development, which will include a family entertainment centre filled with trampolines, climbing walls, a skywalk and café. A ‘Giant Sport Deck’ will also be built, featuring a multi-purpose play and sports complex, with covered five-a-side pitches and tennis courts available for public hire, as well as a virtual golf club called The Quayside Golf Club. The development hopes to change the city, creating jobs for residents and attracting thousands of new visitors.

Muckle and Ryder Architecture, both Newcastle based companies, have been appointed to work on the project, as well as Black & White Engineering and Lichfields.

There are also plans for a 12m tall human-shaped structure to be based at the development. A public competition for people to propose designs for ‘The Geordie Giant’ will be revealed later in the year.

The project, which is expected to be open to the public in 2023, is more than just a collection of retail, leisure and entertainment space, it shows the ambition and capability of what we can achieve. The North East has a built environment littered with striking landmarks, great achievements and a rich history, one I’m extremely proud of – it will be interesting to see what this project adds to that?

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

Driving change for inclusivity in the industry

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

At the weekend thousands of people marched through Newcastle to celebrate inclusivity and diversity. Constructing Excellence in the North East joined the parade to demonstrate support for the construction industry’s LGBT+ workforce, under the banner of #BuildingEquality, the national LGBT+ Construction Working Group.

We extended the invite to anyone working in the industry, whether they identify as LGBT+ or as an ally, wanting to demonstrate support for LGBT colleagues. We were thrilled to have organisations such as FaulknerBrowns, Space Architecture, Mott MacDonald, Arup, Cundall, Atkins and Wood PLC marching alongside us.

This year’s Pride marks 50 years since the Stonewall uprising in New York, an event which led to some of the first pride marches. It also marks 30 years since Stonewall was founded by a group of people who wanted to break down barriers to equality.

Earlier this year, Stonewall released its report of the top 100 LGBT+ employers and in the seven years of the report no construction company has made the list although Housing Associations do. While that is disappointing, the industry has made huge progress in that time in terms of industry press, networks and companies raising the profile of LGBT+ issues and individuals in construction. The network Building Equality formed back in 2015 is an alliance of construction organisations and professionals working together to drive LGBT+ inclusion in the construction sector. Stereotypes and misconceptions are usually just a case of not being educated on the LGBT+ community. Building Equality increases the exposure of the community and spreads the right message in the right way. The network has grown substantially by expanding their reach from London into regional hubs in Leeds and Manchester, and fingers crossed, soon to be the North East. The network has grown to over 30 of the biggest companies in the industry and its only going to keep growing. It would be great to have them in the North East supporting the LGBT+ community and educating the industry.

We’ve come on leaps and bounds in terms of inclusivity in the industry but that’s not to say there isn’t more work to be done. There are so many people working in the industry, it’s understandably going to be difficult to change everyone’s outlook but the amount of people from the industry who supported us at Pride prove that things are beginning to.

Going forward we need to be encouraging the industry to be better represented within the Stonewall index. Change cannot be driven by one or a few companies, we need to do this together. We need to all improve our efforts to help the industry move in the right direction and next year, Northern Pride is hosting the national Pride parade, so we’re working towards a fantastic turnout under the Building Equality banner. Will you be joining us?

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

Changing the image of construction

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Construction is one of the biggest industries in the world and, because of what we do, we have a real potential to make a difference. More than any other industry, our decisions, innovation, ideas and products have a direct impact on the environment, the local community and area. Because of this, it means that we’re susceptible to criticism, most of which I don’t think is always fair.

We’ve struggled with the tarnished image of the industry for some time now. There are many preconceptions by the general public and a lot of it comes from a poor example of how a few firms conduct themselves, but it’s not a true representation of the industry as a whole. Because of this, those companies that conduct proper, conscientious work are the ones working so hard to change perceptions and present an accurate reflection of the industry.

Over 20 years ago, the Considerate Constructors Scheme was launched as an initiative by the industry, for the industry. It was originally started to improve the image of construction and the scheme now shows the very best of the construction – those who are considerate towards customers, their workforce and the environment. The Scheme works through registration of construction sites, companies, suppliers and professional service organisations. They agree to abide by the Code of Considerate Practice and are monitored by industry professionals on their performance. Every year, the Scheme registers around 8,000 sites and makes over 18,000 visits to sites and suppliers.

A great way to create a positive brand image is to simply show that you care. As an industry we’re more aware of the effect we’re having on the environment and we are changing the way we plan and carry out projects. Ever since the introduction of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, the procurement landscape has been changing with public sector bodies now requiring contractors to deliver ‘added value’ as part of contracts. Construction companies need to show that they are considering the environment when planning and carrying out projects. It also pays to get involved in community projects and show your dedication to corporate social responsibility.

The Code of Considerate Practice commits those sites, companies and suppliers registered with the Scheme to care about appearance, respect the community, protect the environment, secure everyone’s safety and value their workforce. These not only benefit the workforce, but also the local community and the environments in which they operate. It also proves to the public that you take Corporate Social Responsibility seriously, strengthening the value of your brand and your organisation’s standing – and it helps with the image and reputation of the industry which is what we’ve been trying to do all along.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact Chief Executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

Two years after Genfell, what’s still to be done?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Following the devastation of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the government carried out an independent review of the Building Regulations and Fire Safety. This week, they published a ‘clarified version’ of Approved Document B.

The new version is simplified, uses less jargon and is written in plain English. It now means that building owners can easily follow and understand the requirements expected of them, limiting any misunderstanding of their responsibility for the safety of residents. The document also brings together guidance for flats and houses.

While this is certainly a step in the right direction and should help building owners going forward, it’s been over two years since the Grenfell tragedy and people continue to campaign for safety in tower blocks, proving there is still so much to be done.

Last month, for the second anniversary of the Grenfell disaster, campaigners shone a spotlight on unsafe tower blocks across the country and a tower block in Newcastle was right at the centre. Messages were projected onto the blocks to highlight a genuine safety concern of residents within that building, it read: ‘2 years after Grenfell and the fire doors in this building still don’t work’. I’ve never really discussed the repercussions, or lack of, from Grenfell but I think it’s important we all speak out and keep talking. It’s the only way we’re ever going to see change. Campaigners, Grenfell United are calling for all dangerous cladding to be removed and safe fire doors, sprinklers and clear fire escapes to be installed in all blocks – is that really too much to ask for?

Residents of 12 tower blocks in Manchester are planning to sue the government for failing to protect them from fire amid rising frustration that thousands of people are still living in dangerous homes. Ministers have promised £600m to fund the removal of the type of combustible cladding that spread the fire at Grenfell, but checks since the tragedy have identified many high-rise blocks with other faults including wooden cladding and missing fire breaks, for which no public funding is yet being offered.

The government announced a ban on combustible materials for new buildings in June last year but the ban is limited only to buildings over 18m tall, meaning there is nothing in place to stop the same cladding used in Grenfell from being used in a five-story care home or building, which is terrifying.

I know that so much work has already been done and over the years Newcastle City Council alone has spent over £9m on fire doors and other fire safety measures, but if we still have buildings without fire doors then I personally don’t think enough has been done. We’ve got to keep talking about Grenfell, it’s the only way we’re ever going to see the change that is needed.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

What’s wrong with retention in construction?

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

This week, the new construction minister, Andrew Stephenson, supported a crackdown on poor payment, saying that the government needs to look at restricting the use of retention.

Retentions are when an agreed percentage of payment is withheld from the contractor. The money builds throughout the project and half of the retention is usually paid on completion, with the remaining balance being paid 12 months later when any defects have been corrected. Retentions give the employer security and encourages the contractor to rectify any problems. However, for years there have been concerns over the misuse of retentions, which has had a huge impact mostly on smaller firms.

A delay in payment means the smaller firms down the project chain suffer, as they have to wait even longer to be paid. Retentions restrict cashflow and lead to a waste in valuable resource and time, often spent chasing for payments – all of which can result in a business becoming insolvent. It’s not fair that the smaller firms are penalised for being a small but that’s what tends to happen – the smaller the firm, the harder it is hit.

Earlier in the year things were finally looking up for the smaller businesses. The government announced that from September, firms that don’t pay at least 95% of undisputed invoices within 60 days face being barred from public sector contracts worth more than £5m, this will ensure the government only does business with companies who pay their suppliers on time, many of which are small businesses – finally a step in the right direction, but is it enough?

Last week at our Construction Leadership event, Andy Mitchell, co-chair of the Construction Leadership Council also stressed that the industry needs to stand up and tell the government how they can support the industry and that includes clamping down on retention clauses and fair payment. The change in payment practices goes beyond reducing the payment time, we need to be naming and shaming those who aren’t paying on time and holding them to account for what they’re doing to the industry and supply chain. There is currently no requirement for the retention fund to be protected, so if the holder of the fund becomes insolvent then the money becomes part of a general pot of money available to creditors. The lack of protection has affected around 44% of contractors who have suffered non-payment over the last three years. When big contractors fail, such as Carillion, there’s a huge knock on effect for most of the industry, with many being businesses at risk of being left out of pocket. We must reduce the likelihood of this happening, so something needs to change.

Finance is a huge problem for our industry and one I don’t think we’ve taken seriously enough in the past. It wouldn’t be accepted in any other industry, so why should ours be any different?

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

Intelligent procurement – it can be achieved

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

Everyone knows how hard the industry, particularly the North East, was hit during the recession, when changes to public sector procurement and the creation of single-sourced frameworks resulted in many companies being excluded from tendering, often on turnover alone.

Although frameworks were sold to government as a chance to save money, this approach has since been shown to be flawed in many areas.  Even now, we don’t need to look far to see evidence of misguided procurement practice resulting in companies simply running out of cash. When decision-making is based on lowest cost/minimum regulatory requirements it can be a recipe for disaster, taking no account of future costs.

It was great to see a huge turnout once again at our annual Constructing Excellence Awards. It just shows how much support the industry has, especially here in the North East. Construction Alliance NorthEast has always been a huge supporter of CENE and I am pleased to hear it is making an impact on regional procurement outcomes.

CAN launched in 2016 to primarily address the issues surrounding fairer procurement, it aims to create a more level playing field for regional SME contractors when tendering for public sector work.  Their reasoning is that the more contracts awarded to regional contractors, the better it is for the long-term future of the sector and a more sustainable industry generally. For me, it makes complete sense.

So, when North East Procurement Organisation (NEPO) began working on its documentation for its next Building Construction Works framework a couple of years ago, CAN worked closely with NEPO to ensure that local companies were not filtered out at an early stage in the process. Instead of turnover, they encouraged NEPO to focus on other key areas such as added social value; the creation of different value bands, up to £2m, between £2m-£5m and over £5m – companies only being allowed to bid for either the high or low bands, not both.

One year after the successful bidders were announced, I am delighted to see that out of almost £30m worth of contracts already tendered, local companies have picked up a significant share of the work, including wins by CAN members, Brims and Esh.  Most importantly, regional companies now account for 70% of those on the framework and they are also able to bid for a further £34m of imminent pipeline contracts, plus further work in the future.


This all goes to show that when effective collaboration takes place, intelligent procurement results. Thanks to the willingness of NEPO to collaborate and be open to advice, a shift in procurement policy was possible. We need more of this to ensure a healthy construction industry in the North East – it CAN be achieved!

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email

National Women in Engineering Day

By Catriona Lingwood, Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence in the North East

National Women in Engineering Day (NWED), which takes place next Sunday, highlights the opportunities available for women in engineering. The event takes place every year on 23 June and aims to raise the profile of women in engineering across the world. It’s your chance to get involved with this year’s theme of #TransformTheFuture.

Even though the engineering industry is now more diverse than ever before, there is still plenty of work to be done to boost female uptake and essentially, Transform the Future. Only 11% of the engineering workforce is female and while I’d love that number to be much higher, it is still an improvement on previous years so things are getting better, just much slower than we would like.

The UK shockingly has the lowest percentage of female engineers in Europe and as it stands, this isn’t set to rise any time soon. The UK needs to significantly increase its number of engineers. The STEM skills shortage is costing businesses £1.5bn in recruitment every year. For the engineering sector to reduce its skills shortage, it needs to employ around 186,000 recruits each year until 2024.


There is a clear move towards embracing inclusion and demolishing stereotypes within the industry at the minute. There are initiatives and people are working towards encouraging more women into the industry, but we could and need to be doing more if we’re to get anywhere near getting the recruits the industry needs in the next five years, not to mention the fact that a gender diverse workforce drives innovation and improves business.  We need to make sure we’re promoting the industry to women when they are still at college and encourage them to take STEM subjects is another way forward. The engineering industry is exciting and has so much to offer, so we need to ensure that this message is getting out to schools and to the wider public.

This year we’re celebrating 100 years of the Women’s Engineering Society, a charity and professional network of female engineers, scientists and technologists. The charity supports and inspires women to achieve their goals in the industry, encouraging education and supporting companies with gender diversity and inclusion. That’s 100 years of challenging stereotypes and encouraging women into higher positions; the fight has been going on since long before many of us even realised there was an issue.

With the skills shortage at a high, we’ve realised we’re in no position to be looking at anything other than level of skill and potential when recruiting workers, we need people from all backgrounds. Equality and inclusion should be a priority in every business, and we’re certainly working hard to ensure that this industry is no different.

For more information on Constructing Excellence in the North East, please contact chief executive, Catriona Lingwood, on 0191 500 7880 or email