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Jim O'Sullivan: getting hands on at Highways England

Drilling a customer focused mindset into engineers at Highways England and its suppliers is the top and toughest task for new boss Jim O’Sullivan. He talks in depth to Mark Hansford on the challenges ahead.

New Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan is setting out to be pretty hands on. Committed to spending at least a day a week visiting sites on the strategic road network, O’Sullivan is determined to be seen as a chief executive that walks the walk.

“If I see something that I don’t see as good customer service I call it in to the call centre. I do it at least two to three times a week. You learn a lot doing that,” says O’Sullivan. “I just phone up and say, ‘Hello, it’s Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive here. Can you tell me why that 60mph limit is on the M1 right now?’”

The answers, he says, have been instantly revealing. For example, O’Sullivan’s calls have already shown up how the automated system that sets the speed limits on Smart motorways is too slow to respond to clearing traffic.

M4 M5 smart motorway scheme in operation

Not-so-Smart motorways? O’Sullivan has discovered the speed limits reset too slowly

The algorithms aren’t quite up to it, it turns out, and speed limits could be reset at least five to seven minutes faster. “And that sort of thing is key,” he says.

“Improving customer service is the fastest way to persuade the public that this is a different organisation,” he asserts. “And that means having signs that make sense, roadworks that you spend less time in and work sites that you can see people working in.”

O’Sullivan is not pointing fingers at his predecessor Graham Dalton or the Agency that Highways England has replaced; he is merely pointing out the different time in which he is now operating.

“The Highways Agency was fit for purpose, but we are moving into a different world,” he says. The last road programme the Agency procured following the post-recession spending review and the first priority was to do everything at the lowest possible cost.

“Back then, you might have wanted to do work at weekends, or do rolling roadworks where work is done in shorter sections. Well, both are more expensive. In 2010, quite rightly, lowest cost was the priority.

“But now, given the volume of work ahead, we have to look differently; we have to have shorter roadworks in both length and in duration,” says O’Sullivan.

It’s quite simple – Highways England has a target of 97% availability and having lengthy roadworks eating into the available capacity just won’t do.

This focus on minimising impact on the road user is already becoming apparent in the award – or lack of award – of work on the major A14 upgrade and, more recently, in the award of the latest Smart motorway contracts. On the A14 Highways England held off awarding one of the three geographic packages because it needed to make certain tenderers aware of the new expectation around customer-focused project delivery. And in the latest tranche of Smart motorway awards some firms on Highways England’s Collaborative Delivery Framework (CDF) were notable by their absence.

But O’Sullivan is confident the message will get through and that all suppliers in its CDF will play a major part in delivery.

“There is plenty still to go at,” he says, referencing the fact that we are now in year one of a five year, £15bn Road Investment Strategy (RIS) period with the bulk of the spending yet to come. Year 3 is when workload really ramps up, from between £1bn and £1.5bn a year currently to £4bn a year plus.

That is when firms on Highways England’s Collaborative Delivery Framework really need to be engaged, he says, as that is when the real learning curve kicks in.

“Years three, four and five of the current Road Investment Strategy (RIS) are the period of steepest growth in delivery and there will be more opportunity for everybody,” he says. “Right now the delivery isn’t that much different to what has gone before. But if you are not part of years 3, 4 and 5 of this RIS it is going to be very hard to get into the next one. If you miss year 4 and 5 it will be very difficult as you won’t have been part of this growth.”

Highways spend

Closed shop?

The way O’Sullivan is talking it makes it sound hard for firms not already part of the CDF to get involved. But he dismisses such a suggestion.

“Work-wise it’s not all in the CDF,” he says. “There are still some significant packages to be let.

“And while we have over £11bn of capital works we also have £3bn of what I would call capital renewals and that is in itself far more than the combined value of the works let under the CDF to date,” he says.

But what he does not expect to see is contractors from Europe and beyond descending on the UK in the hunt for a slice of Highways England’s £15bn pie. “In terms of the raw materials, the plant and the man hours needed there are significant barriers to entry,” he states.

What he does want to see right now is more of his suppliers with international parent companies to be looking wider than the UK roads sector for new ways of working.

“I don’t want to be seen as being critical but I don’t feel the road building sector has drawn freely on innovation. I would expect to see UK companies making more of the skill that exists with their international parent companies,” he states.

He uses Amey, owned by Spanish giant Ferrovial, as an example to illustrate his point. Having joined Highways England from Ferrovial-owned Heathrow Airport he is more than aware of the skills available there: “I know for a fact that Ferrovial’s worldwide road building and bridge building is second to none and I would be disappointed if that is not being leveraged in the UK,” he says.

And it’s not just from overseas he wants to see innovation – other sectors can also offer thinking to be tapped into, he says. “Given that we’re not at the cutting edge there is stuff out there already proven – that’s a no-brainer,” he says.

He cites the work Costain is doing at Immingham Port where he saw it replace a rail bridge in 70 hours. “That’s the sort of skill we are looking for from our contractors,” he says.


Much has already been made of the challenge around skills. In December then Highways Agency chief Dalton told NCE that the firm will recruit to grow from employing 3,500 to 4,000 with major projects director Peter Adams adding that “a significant number” of the new roles required at the organisation would be in programme and project management. But O’Sullivan thinks there are ways around the problem.

“First is making the most of the people we have got. By bringing people in to admin roles we can backfill the more front-facing roles.

“Secondly we can make use of more advanced forms of contracting. There is an inherent duplication in more traditional forms. If we can move to collaborative partnerships with shared targets and outcomes, that frees up resource.

“And finally, the nature of our work is changing. The Smart motorways programme requires systems engineers and software engineers writing algorithms; we want behaviourists understanding the phycology of how people behave.”

O’Sullivan cites as an example the classic, “Slow: lane closed ahead” sign, which of course urges all drivers to slow down to allow other vehicles to safely merge lanes. Intriguingly the latest evidence is that this sign is now interpreted as applying only to those in the lane that is closed, and even then that all is needed is to slow down in that lane in order to negotiate the obstacle. Which is clearly not the case.

All in all, it means that O’Sullivan believes the skills issue can be resolved.

“I certainly don’t think 50% more delivery means 50% more people,” he says. How many more people? “We’re getting into the detailed planning of that. Clearly it means more people. But not 50%.”

Future growth

The current programme is significant in anybody’s terms, but O’Sullivan is confident that it will be more than matched in the next RIS period.

“Unequivocally the Strategic Road Network needs to grow again. The forecasts the government is making around economic growth would put the road network under increasing strain, so if you don’t continue to grow it there will be a tipping point where certain areas could hold back economic growth,” he says. “If the economy continues to grow RIS 2 will be bigger.”

He has three specific areas in mind, and three specific major schemes, namely the A14, the A303 and the Lower Thames Crossing. The A14 of course is poised to begin, while studies continue for a revived tunnel beneath the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and for a new bridge across the Thames east of the existing crossing at Dartford.

Supporting the government’s Northern Powerhouse aspirations, possibly via a trans-Pennine tunnel, comes a close fourth.

And O’Sullivan is keen to stress that these are not pie in the sky schemes. “While schemes in the RIS are fixed, if government wanted to exercise its right to accelerate other schemes we would support that,” he says.

There is a fifth potential mega-scheme: tackling the currently unsolvable problem of the M25 between the M3 and M4. And it’s clearly a problem that chartered engineer O’Sullivan relishes.

“Engineers are problem solvers. Look at Google – it is run by two engineers are they are always finding problems as that is where the next opportunity for them lies – finding solutions to those problems. I am a chartered engineer and as I’ve moved from engineer to executive solving problems has always been a motivator to me,” he says.

Well, with the M3-M4 stretch of the M25 the problems don’t come much bigger. Already operating as a first-generation “Smart” motorway, hemmed in on all sides and statistically one of the worst performing stretches of road in the UK, the solutions are not obvious for a section of road that operates as a combination of internationally strategic trans-European highway, regional distributor, airport access and local commuter route.

But salvation could be coming in the form of a government green light for a third runway at Heathrow, because O’Sullivan is clear that the opportunity would have to be seized to do much more than simply deck over the existing four-lane motorway.

“It would become a very complex piece of road building. If, and it needs the biggest if on your typeface, if that scheme went ahead we would have leave that area better than we found it,” he states.


More expansion of O’Sullivan’s empire could come from bringing back into the strategic road network (SRN) roads that have been downgraded - detrunked - under previous government administrations. It is a suggestion that is gathering momentum after the government announced that vehicle excise duty (road tax) will soon be ringfenced solely for use on the SRN. Cash-strapped councils may well prefer their busiest, costliest to maintain roads to be in the hands of the richer Highways England.

O’Sullivan says such moves could happen, but only for the right – strategic – reasons. “The clue is in the title,” he states. “We would push back against putting roads into the strategic road network on a cost of maintenance basis.

“But there may well be places that with upgrade the strategic network could be expanded. We’re very keen to have a consultation of the widest possible kind for the next RIS – RIS2 – and that is the sort of discussion we might have with councils,” he says.

So Highways England and O’Sullivan are clearly planning for future road spending to eclipse current plans. But that is possible if Highways England and its supply chain are clearly seen to be delivering the current £15bn plan. And that evidence has to be visible by year three of the programme in 2017/18, reinforces O’Sullivan

“Year 3 is the critical year. It is the year when the workload really ramps up, but it is also the year when we start to negotiate RIS 2 with government,” he says.

And it will start that negotiation with a two-year track record of delivery – or, heaven forbid, under-delivery.

“Year three is critical. We need to have delivered year one and two,” he states. It’s as simple as that.  

Jim O’Sullivan CV

As managing director of the Airports Division at Heathrow Airport Holdings (BAA) between October 2012 and December 2014, O’Sullivan was responsible for all the group’s airports outside Heathrow. He was previously managing director at Edinburgh Airport, and technical standards and assurance director at Heathrow Airport Holdings (BAA); he spent four years at Central Networks (Eon UK) as capital delivery and field force director, and he worked for British Airways for 14 years between 1988 and 2002, serving some of that time as chief engineer for Concorde and as technical director for the airline.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Ian Walsh

    It is great that someone in HE has noticed that the current Smart roads algorithms are useless and worse than ineffective as they bring the whole system into disrepute
    In addition everyone knows that 40mph = 4mph!

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