Just over a year ago, our West Midlands Network added Nick Tavernor to the team.
Very much on-site, hands-on and wearing the full Cadent PPE, you’d be forgiven for mistaking him for one of our engineers. But Nick is not an engineer.
Nick is Cadent’s first site husbandry supervisor.
A specialist in arboriculture and horticulture, he’s already had an impressive impact, transforming our approach to how we co-exist with nature on our sites.
As adept to climbing some of the world’s tallest trees as he is to creating a wildlife pond in his garden, he’s someone with the expertise to really understand the living environment our kiosks, governors and above-ground pipework reside in.
And he’s making sure site safety and operational capability can exist in harmony with the flora and fauna we share our sites with, whether that’s in the heart of a busy city, or in the remotest parts of the rural communities we serve.
In many cases, he has introduced measures that hugely improve biodiversity.
During his first year with us, Nick set about visiting and improving every one of West Midlands’ 1,776 district governor sites; the small kiosk buildings which house the essential governor units that manage gas pressures in a local community.
Added to this list next year will be around 300 above-7bar sites.
To achieve this, and with the full support and backing of the WM management team, Nick has recruited and trained a pool of 20 first-call operatives (FCOs).
When we have quieter periods, such as summer months, these colleagues are rostered to Nick and join him in visiting the governor sites.
Equipped with the know-how and tools needed, they’re able to set about the tasks of clearing and tidying, but (crucially) in a planned, sustainable way.
“The team has been brilliant; everyone’s come at this with a superb attitude,” says Nick [pictured below].
“I feel like we’ve made a difference already – but then I wouldn’t want to be here if I wasn’t.”
This was one of things about Cadent that appealed to Nick – to join a company committed to adhering to ISO14001 environmental standards, as well as having long-term plans to keep improving and to helping others on their journeys too.
“Lots of companies do things like use recycled toilet paper and change the cleaning products, and it doesn’t really break out of the office environment. In Cadent, we are working much harder. And we can also put the responsibility onto our suppliers too, asking them to provide us with products and services that consider the environment, which boosts their level of eco-friendliness. It goes on and on from there. Before you know it, we are raising our game together and that’s how it should work.”
So, what are the changes introduced by Nick’s green-fingered engineer army?
“Some of the changes have been quite simple, but if you have not been immersed in the horticultural and environmental industry as I have, you most likely wouldn’t have thought about it,” says Nick.
“Contrary to belief – and past practice – our job is not just to cut everything back. It’s about managing the sites and training our brains to think differently. You need to take a step back and appreciate that there is beauty in what some see as untidy. Managed well, wild and overgrown can be a very good thing.
“See those vent stacks?” says Nick. “They need to have a good level of clearance from vegetation. I could remove the trees and shrubs completely – but that’s the easy option and it is so disruptive to wildlife. One thing we’re looking at is vent stack placement and whether, when changing them, we can position them where they’re given the greatest possible clearance from trees. That means everything stays safe and fully operational, and we reduce how much we have to cut back.”
Nick and the team set about developing a plan that trims back the vegetation and thinks about the frequency of doing so.
“Our previous contractors’ approach on grass care was to come along and mow six times a year and cut everything back. Well, that’s six times a year that you’ve started up a petrol mower. To what end? Think about the labour, the fuel, the green waste involved in that.
“Instead we can turn these areas into wildflower meadow. In terms of perception, that doesn’t look untidy, it looks pretty. Yet it’s species-rich grassland which sustains birds, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, insects, bees, butterflies and moths – and you would only need to do one annual cut.
“We are not maintaining back gardens; these are working sites. You don’t need to keep putting down herbicide to keep on top of weeds. That’s not always needed and won’t always have the desired effect. I want us to ‘re-wild’ – find ways to keep our sites safe, but in ways that reduces our impact on the environment and improves biodiversity.
“Take ivy – we get a lot at our sites and it can cause issues. But there is no need to cut it all away. If we can manage it well, it can be allowed to grow on deteriorating, weak fencing structures, solidifying them. Over time, it becomes a natural freestanding structure which outlives the fence panels and is a natural barrier that’s resistant to graffiti. It screens the asset and provides shelter for insects, birds, bats and small mammals. It is also a late-season source of nectar for butterflies, wasps and bees, while the winter berries are a source of food for our songbirds.
“Just cutting it all back is causing longer-term problems. If you manage it carefully, and understand what you’re doing, you stop longer-term issues.
“Anything we do cut back, we look to leave on site, or take to a nearby site, to create perfect habitats for bugs, birds and other wildlife. We look first to see if we really have to take it away from site, or whether it can stay. If it has to go, then what’s nearby that can accommodate it? – rather than a three-quarter hour drive back to a depot to empty it into a skip.”
Conscious though that the public may not have the same view, thinking we’re letting our sites get overgrown and unsightly, Nick’s already got in his mind a programme focussed on education. This might involve signs or other customer communications that explain why we’re doing what we’re doing and how it is for the benefit of the environment.
Nick’s team are also introducing bird boxes to our sites where they can and he’s in talks with wildlife rescue groups, thinking some of our locations could be perfect as release sites for animals (such as hedgehogs) to return to the wild.
Kate Grant, West Midlands’ Network Director, said: “Nick and his FCO team are changing our mindset, and without doubt role-modelling our vision to keep people warm in their homes, while protecting the planet. I’m so proud that West Midlands is leading the way on this. As Nick says, this can never be a ‘tick box’ exercise. We must challenge ourselves, and we have the evidence now to show it can be done.”
How this fits neatly with Cadent’s Environment Action Plan
As part of our RIIO-2 commitments, we launched our Environment Action Plan. This includes an action to develop and introduce a Key Sites Environmental Enhancement Plan.
Over the next five years, we plan to work in partnership with other organisations to improve habitats in areas associated with our activities and achieve net habitat gain.
We have commenced a programme of surveys to map and score our landholdings against the DEFRA Biodiversity Metric. These surveys generate action plans which are being implemented on sites.
We are also working with The Wildlife Trusts to achieve the Biodiversity Benchmark on five flagship sites across our networks.
You can see our Environment Action Plan here
Cadent in the West Midlands
Cadent operates four of the UK’s eight gas distribution networks: North West, West Midlands, Eastern and North London. Its West Midlands network covers a wide area from North Staffordshire to Herefordshire, reaching the M1 in the East and the Welsh borders on the West.
Hundreds of engineers and support teams ensure 24/7, year-round management of an underground piped gas distribution network which, if placed end to end, stretches to more than 15,000 miles. That’s almost 4.5 times the distance from Solihull to New York.
Cadent also provides the region’s gas emergency service, with operatives ready to respond quickly, day and night, to reported gas escapes or carbon monoxide incidents, or to support the blue-light emergency services dealing with incidents where gas is present (e.g. house fires).
This West Midlands Network is playing a huge role in helping to switch the gas grid away from fossil fuels, with Cadent, Keele University and other partners recently completing a UK-first trial of blending hydrogen into the existing gas pipe network. Using hydrogen in this blended way is a key step to converting the UK-wide system – essential to achieving net zero carbon emissions.