Stronger Highways England key to £4bn a year road spend, says chief executive

Jim O’Sullivan sets out his thinking for the organisation ahead of a keynote speech this week at the Highways UK event where he will expand on his priorities and aspirations for the organisation. 

Jim O'Sullivan, Highways England

You’ve been in the role for four or five months now – give us a sense for how that has been.

First and foremost it’s recognizing the roads programme that we have been asked to deliver and how important it to both us and Government who, in providing a five-year funding settlement, has expressed their confidence in our ability to deliver.  We will go from investing some £1.5bn annually to around £4bn a year – the equivalent of nearly ‘two Olympics’ worth of infrastructure spend over the next five years. 

The people responsible for planning, developing, managing and maintaining the UK's road network will be gathering at Highways UK, (London ExCeL) on 25th -26th November.


The two days will feature a particularly strong programme of Industry briefings and keynotes  at a particularly  exciting time for the highways sector. With so much 'not to be missed' content it is important that the industry gets together to collaborate and benefit from insights and clear vision for the sector.


ACO will be bringing the new 'Highways Hangout' to Excel in partnership with Highways UK team. Selections from the live keynotes and interviews will be live streamed from the event and available to Infrastructure Intelligence readers free of charge in real time. 

Simply click on the Highways Hangout link - find the live feed channel. It is an opportunity for all those that can't attend this year to at least engage in some way and benefit from the investment Highways UK have made in bringing the community together.


To attend or find out more about the full breadth of content visit

In order to deliver this roads modernisation programme we are strengthening our organisation at every level and, together with our supply chain, we are determined to deliver the programme to improve journeys for all road users. 

Within my first hundred days – that was up until September – we have dealt with a number of high profile issues. We had a fatality within our workforce where we are upgrading the M3 to a smart motorway. We were already in the process of reviewing our approach to safety and the incident highlighted the need for us to do better in this area. So we are reviewing our approach, and we’re working with our supply chain to identify and adopting best practice across the industry. It is important to incorporate learning experience from other sectors – not just roads – because there are some really good working practices elsewhere in the construction industry and they can be beneficial to us as well.

We also had Operation Stack on the M20 in Kent which is very disruptive for people travelling, particularly those living and working in the region and travelling between the UK and the continent. We’re now looking to identify a longer term solution because Operation Stack is a partial solution to what should be an issue at the port and channel crossing. Stack was implemented more times in July than the previous five years, in some cases for days at a time, and it just isn’t viable closing sections of a major motorway for such prolonged periods of time.

Alongside operational issues, we are charged with delivering the £15bn capital investment set out in the government’s Road Investment Strategy by modernising, maintaining and operating the country’s strategic road network. I’m absolutely committed to making sure we can demonstrate our ability to deliver this.  Over the current five years alone our plans include delivering 112 major improvements, including 15 smart motorway projects providing 280 extra miles of capacity, and resurfacing the majority of the network, alongside environmental, accessibility and efficiency improvements.

We are already preparing a plan for the following five years to 2025 – so it is a good time to be in the roads sector.

What were your impressions of Highways England?

We can be very proud of what Highways England has inherited from the Highways Agency. My first observation was that the organisation was fit for its delivery purpose with a good reputation on being able to deliver large projects on time and on budget. 

There is more we can do from the customer service perspective making sure that we are catering for the needs of everybody who uses our roads whether it is a cautious driver in a small car who uses the motorways very infrequently or a haulier in a large truck who is accustomed to driving on motorways. We need to make sure everybody is getting the best level of customer service that we can provide. 

One of the key things I’ve talked about since starting is our place in the roads sector. We are the manager/operator of the network– so our job is to deliver the government’s Road Investment Strategy, optimize the capacity of the roads, and provide safe and reliable journey times. 

We can only achieve this using innovation, talent, and collaboration with our supply chain partners: their expertise, their investment and their passion is vital to helping us deliver our programme and improve our customers’ experience on our network.

They integrate various specialisms across the sector – bringing all that knowledge and expertise together to get the physical work done out on the network. 

What are your key focuses now that you have been in charge for a while?

That’s a really straightforward question to answer. Number one is safety. 

As well as giving our customers everything we can we must also have safety as our number one priority. Four million road users take to our roads each day, taking journeys totaling 85 billion miles per year. At any one time we employ 3,000 construction workers, 6,000 maintenance workers and 200 traffic officers to work on our network. Not one of them should be harmed when travelling or working on our highways.

We also need to understand what our customers want. We can learn a lot from other transport operators across the sector but recognise that the Strategic Road Network is different in many ways because it is an open network. We operate a network that is accessible by anybody with a driving license and any vehicle at any time. We have to address all of their needs.

Then of course there’s making sure we are in a position in two years’ time, when we start preparing the detail of the next roads investment programme, that we have demonstrated our ability to deliver, making sure that we are addressing all our key performance indicators and also making sure that we are delivering this work in a way that considers the needs of the communities around us.  

What are your aspirations for Highways England?

I would like to get us to a place where other organisations recognise us for our network management skills, our project delivery, our commitment to continuous improvement and of course our safety performance. 


Jim O’Sullivan will be delivering a keynote speech at the Highways UK event later in November where he will be talking in more detail about his priorities and aspirations for Highways England. 

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