Highways are in Jim O’Sullivan’s blood: his father and grandfather both worked on the roads in England and Ireland.
But the Highways England chief executive did not always see himself following in their footsteps.
“One can argue there is something in the DNA or the destiny that causes one to work in roads,” says O’Sullivan.
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“But it certainly wasn’t an active career plan when I was studying air transport engineering at City University.”
After a stint in the utilities industry O’Sullivan rose to become British Airways technical director, achieving a long-held ambition and prompting a rethink about his next move. He says, in a typically understated way, the opportunity to lead newly created Highways England in 2015 happened to come along at the right time.
O’Sullivan is a modest man. He describes the “great things” Highways England has achieved but refuses to take credit for them. Getting on with the job in uncertain times, it seems, is his top priority.
“I’ve been here two-and-a-half years. I have had two prime ministers, two secretaries of state, two permanent secretaries and three ministers,” he says.
I intend to be here and bringing stability to this organisation for quite some time
“So, I intend to be here and bringing stability to this organisation for quite some time.”
That stability is arguably needed in this period of Highways England’s short history. After becoming Highways England in 2015, funding switched from an annual cycle to a five-year programme known as the Road Investment Strategy (RIS), set up to encourage a long-term vision for improving Britain’s roads. The £15bn RIS1, running from 2015 to 2020, covers more than 100 road schemes.
But in October, 32 of the schemes were moved: 10 have been brought forward from planned dates while 16 have been pushed back into RIS2 (2020 to 2025). Six of the schemes have been sent back to the Department for Transport (DfT) for a new cost-benefit analysis.
The reason for altering the schedule is to avoid a glut of roadworks taking place, partly to minimise disruption for motorists but also to ensure resources in the supply chain are not stretched too thinly.
We could certainly do more on safety, and we could do more on customer service, for sure
O’Sullivan strongly denies poor planning was to blame for the swaps. Instead he says it was a feature of his organisation being transformed from the Highways Agency to Highways England.
“I think people were very nervous in the first year about changing anything in the five-year RIS, because the whole approach was to bring control.
“But I think as we’ve got further into it and become more confident, we felt it was OK to revisit this, to see it as a challenge and to change it,” he says.
“I think if we had tried to change it too early, people would have said, ‘ah, yet another example of a company that can’t deliver’.”
Another big shake-up is in the procurement of Highways England work. Most of the work for RIS1 has been procured through the Collaborative Delivery Framework (CDF), a four-lot national framework with a one-size-fits-all approach.
But from next year, Highways England is moving towards a more flexible, programme-based approach known as Routes to Market. For this, two procurement streams are being set up: one is the Regional Investment Programme (RIP), which will be used to procure conventional work, such as widening and junction improvements across England; another is the Smart Motorways Programme which aims to tackle congestion and provide better travel information for drivers.
Procurement of major infrastructure projects such as the £4.4bn Lower Thames Crossing and the £1.6bn A303 Stonehenge Tunnel scheme will be run separately. This should make procurement easier, as contracts will be tailored to these schemes. By contrast, the £1.6bn A14 improvement scheme was procured through the CDF model, and it was felt that this had not worked as well as it could have.
“It worked, but it was hard work. It was more work than it should have been,” says O’Sullivan.
It is hoped the Routes to Market approach will also stamp out accusations of unfairness which have been thrown at the CDF model. For example, if two £30M schemes were bundled into a £60M scheme it changed the tender lot or category within which it was placed, barring smaller firms which might have bid for a £30M contract from bidding for the bigger one.
Changing from a lot-based framework to a more regional approach should help address some of those issues, and allow more room for nuance in procurement.
“We think that [a regional approach] will reduce the imbalance we saw in RIS1 in terms of some lots being over-full and some lots being undersubscribed,” says O’Sullivan.
The switch involves a change in contractor selection criteria.
Those contractors who are working on projects already will find that subsequent work will be awarded following a wider assessment of its performance than might previously have been expected.
So what criteria will firms be judged on?
“Well we’re working on that, but it would include a combination of safety, scheme delivery, value added, efficiency delivered, quality and value for money,” says O’Sullivan.
Value, not price
“So it’s more based on value than price, I think is how I would summarise it.”
One thing O’Sullivan will be looking for from potential partners is a focus on customer satisfaction, which he says has not always been forthcoming. More is being done to try to create a better experience for motorists: instead of warning drivers of delays; effort is being made to put an exact time until the end of the roadworks on the overhead signage. Recently there have been trials on whether the speed limit can be safely pushed up from 50mph to 60mph through roadworks.
“I wouldn’t criticise our suppliers at all, but I do think we could do more. We could certainly do more on safety, and we could do more on customer service, for sure,” he says.
“I think if I was to go back a year, historically – not today, because today people are starting to embrace this agenda – but if I was to go back a year I think people would have said that roadworks are not a nice experience and there’s nothing we can do.
“I think today people recognise that there are things that can make the journey easier for motorists and that when we do them, people notice.”
Achieving easier journeys also means embracing technological changes. Better use of customer journey data means Highways England can offer more accurate journey times, and even suggest what time motorists should set off when the roads are congested so they can avoid the worst of the traffic.
“When I first arrived here two-and-a-half years ago, the question I was asked is: ‘is Highways England a good idea?’,” he says. “That question has long since gone away.”