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Highways England chief guarantees £7bn investment

  • Highways England will commit £7bn next year through the Roots to Market procurement initiative
  • Roads body also preparing a £500M “bucket” of “shovel-ready” projects for any stimulus money to be used on
  • O’Sullivan issues warning to any firms scaling back recruitment post-Brexit

Despite concerns over Brexit it’s business as usual at Highways England, according to chief executive Jim O’Sullivan.

Speaking at New Civil Engineer’s UK Roads conference, O’Sullivan reassured delegates that the five-year Road Investment Strategy (RIS) for improvements will go ahead.

“That five-year programme is committed. It is there. And it takes quite a lot of work to uncommit it,” he said.

O’Sullivan was speaking after a poll of delegates found that 78% expected to see projects delayed or deferred as a result of the Brexit vote. Although a second vote found that few had acutally experienced delays so far. O’Sullivan said the biggest threat to the programme was under-delivery, not Brexit.

“My concern [amid post-Brexit uncertainty] is a loss of energy and commitment around delivery,” he said.

Highways England will commit £7bn next year through the Roots to Market procurement initiative, with further details expected to be revealed this month – or over the summer.

“This has not changed in the light of Brexit,” said O’Sullivan. ”The only thing that has changed is the need for me to stand here and tell you that is what we are doing. And that plan continues on track.”

Jim osullivan uk roads

Jim O’Sullivan at UK Roads

Jim O’Sullivan was upbeat at UK Roads

Beyond the current five-year plan, O’Sullivan said he expected RIS II spending to look similar to years four and five in the current RIS. 

And if the government decides to stimulate the economy, O’Sullivan said Highways England was preparing a £500M “bucket” of smaller, “shovel-ready” projects for any stimulus money to be used on.

He said these would be £5M to £10M local schemes, many of which would not need planning permission.

Previous fiscal stimulus spending programmes have been hampered because projects where the money could be spent were not identified early.

O’Sullivan also had stern words for firms considering holding back on recruitment post-Brexit, insisting that those that do will struggle to win work going forward. “For those firms that will be a very difficult conversation with their shareholders,” he said.

Safety is a further priority for O’Sullivan, whose background in the aviation industry inculcated him with a zero-tolerance view towards safety breaches.

“Over the last 12 months we have put much more emphasis on putting safety first because safety also contributes to availability,” he said.

Fewer accidents are not only altruistic but also make the road network more efficient, he added.

“When I first arrived I was not happy with what I saw in the construction industry with regards to roads. Every single major constructor who was working in the roads sector had a worse record in their roads division than their average for anywhere else,” he said. “That was completely unacceptable.”

Today, over half those companies involved in Highways England projects have a better safety record in their roads division than their group average. O’Sullivan said he hopes to see that improvement spread to all companies working on Highways England projects.

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