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Highways England Jim O'Sullivan discusses Brexit, the next Roads Investment Strategy and skills shortages

After more than 13 months in the job, Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan has a lot to talk about. 

The £15bn Roads Investment Strategy remains on track, major strides have been made in improving safety for road workers, and funding for the next five-year roads settlement, Roads Investment Strategy 2, has been secured.

Nevertheless, there’s still work to be done.

A recent Office of Road and Rail report has called for more clarity over how the rest of RIS will be delivered; a new £7bn roads framework is to be launched by the spring; and contractors are worried about what impact Brexit might have on future roads investment.

So the next 12 months will be crucial.

Construction News caught up with the man in charge of the country’s roads to talk about his first year and what the future holds for Highways England and its supply chain.

Brexit 

Other major infrastructure projects have been cast in doubt since Britain’s vote to leave the EU, but the UK’s roads sector has been largely shielded.

Mr O’Sullivan is clear: “Brexit does not impact what we are doing.”

“The country will always need new roads and the supply chain should look to Highways England for long-term, secure work”

He says the organisation has already had assurances from new transport secretary Chris Grayling that funding for the Roads Investment Strategy is safe, with Mr Grayling calling on Highways England not to postpone any work.

And he believes this will be the case for the RIS 2, which runs from 2020/21 to 2024/25.

“The biggest threat to RIS 2 will be the failure of RIS 1,” Mr O’Sullivan says, but he is confident the first iteration will succeed. “The country will always need new roads and the supply chain should look to Highways England for long-term, secure work.”

Routes to Market framework 

In April it was revealed that the £5bn Collaborative Delivery framework would come to an end and a new deal would be needed to replace it. This will come in the form of the £7bn Routes to Market framework.

Mr O’Sullivan says the CDF has been successful but not perfect, and Highways England is now consulting with contractors to get best procurement model for the remainder of RIS 1.

Generic roads Highways England M4 M5 smart motorway scheme in operation

Generic roads Highways England M4 M5 smart motorway scheme in operation

Parts of the network such as Area 2 will see the roll-out of the new asset-led delivery model

The changes will include the scrapping of ‘mini-competitions’ within the framework, which Mr O’Sullivan says increase bidding costs and waste time. Contractors will instead be allocated work based on past delivery and cost value, as well as other key performance indicators such as safety, he says. 

The Route to Markets framework is also likely to get bigger, with Mr O’Sullivan keen to add at least three tier one firms to Highways England’s supply chain.

RIS 2: Projects moved forward

In the Office of Rail and Road’s assessment of Highways England’s first year, the number of project starts scheduled for the final year of RIS was identified as a concern. The watchdog said this could impede the delivery of RIS 1 and could have a negative impact on project starts in RIS 2.

“To be able to contract with tier ones and tier twos directly should be impactful on shape and size of our supply chain”

Mr O’Sullivan admits this could not only impact road users but stretch resources, adding that some of the scheduled project starts could be brought forward to overcome these challenges.

If taken forward, however, he says this would not have any impact on the volumes of work carried out in RIS 1. “I have suggested we should stick to the start date of the first scheme, stick to the end date of the last scheme but re-profile some of the work between those times.”

Engaging tier twos and tier threes

Among Mr O’Sullivan’s main goals is to get Highways England more engaged with tier two and tier three suppliers. “There are definitely a couple of areas we could [improve] for tier twos and those firms further down our supply chain.”

“Improvement in safety on construction projects is down to how demanding the client is. And we are very demanding”

One of those areas was to come up with a long-term capital maintenance plan so firms could have more clarity over future opportunities. Greater engagement with these firms has already begun, with the new asset-led delivery model currently being piloted in East Midlands Area 7.

Over the next few years this is set to be rolled out Cornwall and Devon Area 1; Somerset, Avon, Wiltshire and Gloucestershire Area 2; Cumbria and parts of Lancashire Area 13; and Northumberland, Tyne & Wear, Durham and North Yorkshire Area 14.

Generic roads Highways England motorway roads safety infrastructure worker 1

Generic roads Highways England motorway roads safety infrastructure worker 1

Safety has improved over the past 12 months, Mr O’Sullivan pointed out

The new model will bring programme management roles in-house, allowing Highways England to contract directly with smaller firms. “Tier ones and tier twos are very innovative and add a great deal of value to the supply chain. To be able to contract with them directly should be impactful on shape and size of our supply chain.”

Safety performance

“Improvement in safety on construction projects is down to how demanding the client is,” Mr O’Sullivan argues. “And we are very demanding.”

“It should be contractors that are solving the skills problem, not looking to Highways England to solve it for them”

Just 12 months ago, every one of Highways England’s tier one contractors had a safety record that was worse than their own group average. A year on, half the company’s contractors have a safety record that is better than their group averages.

Mr O’Sullivan says safety had become one of the most important parts of procurement at Highways England and contractors are now being ranked on their safety performance. “The table is presented to contractors at supplier events. Everyone knows where they stand in their safety ranking on Highways England work.”

Hear more from Jim O’Sullivan

The Highways England chief executive will be among the leading figures from major clients at this year’s CN Summit.
Hear from our incredible line-up of speakers on where the industry is heading – book your place now at CN Summit 2016 on 11-12 October at Hilton Bankside, London.

Skills

In a recent report, the ORR saw the shortage of skills as the biggest threat to the successful delivery of RIS.

The message from Mr O’Sullivan is clear: “It should be contractors that are solving the skills problem, not looking to Highways England to solve it for them.”

He adds: “I am a client with a large and valuable workload; I would ask contractors what are they doing and how are they going to satisfy their shareholders.”

Generic roads Highways England motorway roads infrastructure worker maintenance 2

Generic roads Highways England motorway roads infrastructure worker maintenance 2

The CEO says a secure pipeline of work will help attract skilled workers

He believes the Department for Transport’s initiative to recruit 30,000 apprentices to the sector will be hugely important to ensuring more skills were in place.

The fact that roads funding was secured for the next 10 years ensures there will be work for these new entrants to the sector and makes the roads sector more attractive for these workers, he adds.

Private investment

While the roads capital programme is fully government funded and RIS 2 will be covered by vehicle excise duty, Mr O’Sullivan says Highways England is looking at private investment for some of its projects.

One scheme that has just started in Lincoln Mills has seen Highways England contribute £10m to road improvements alongside a significant investment from private developers.

Mr O’Sullivan says the organisation would be looking at more opportunities like this.

All Lane Running motorways

Highways England will continue with its plans to of converting millions of kilometres of hard shoulder into permanent lanes.

Last month a transport select committee called for the scrapping of the plan, calling the new motorways “unsafe”.

Mr O’Sullivan says the data the organisation had collected so far had shown that all lane motorways were as safe as regular motorways.

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