Departing Highways England boss outlines future challenges for successor
Jim O’Sullivan announced his departure from Highways England last week, revealing that he will step down as chief executive in early 2021.
O’Sullivan joined the organisation in 2015 from Heathrow Airport where he was managing director of the airports division.
While a replacement has yet to be appointed, O’Sullivan confirmed that this process is likely to start in September.
“The board hasn’t yet started the succession process,” he told NCE. “As far as I’m aware, it’s the board’s decision. We have a new chairman [Dipesh Shah] starting on 1 September, so I think he will take charge of the process for the appointment of my successor.”
Commenting on the timing of his departure, O’Sullivan insisted it is the right time to move on because the organisation is “in good shape”.
“I’ve often said that you should hand over the reins on a straight road, on a sunny day,” he said. “You don’t hand over the reins on a dark, wet night while you tackle a bend.”
He added: “The company is in good shape. The programme is in a good place. Now is the right time to hand it over.”
While a successor has yet to be announced, O’Sullivan said it will be crucial for the incoming chief executive to build on Highways England’s successes and simultaneously prepare for new challenges during the second road investment strategy (RIS2) period.
“Firstly, I think it will be important to build on the successes. But secondly, it’s about being alert to new challenges,” he said.
“In terms of successes, the ability to build major projects to time and to budget is important. We need to do that and then improve on that.”
O’Sullivan also highlighted Highways England’s safety record which continues to improve, outlining a reduction in contractor injuries which have dropped by 30% during his tenure, as well as traffic officers’ serious injuries falling by a factor of 10 in the last five years.
According to O’Sullivan, a factor of 10 improvement in safety is practically unheard of in the industry. He believes the organisation’s improvements in safety and its customer service ethic are keys areas that his successor should “bank and build on”.
Looking ahead, the outgoing Highways England boss believes working closely with the Department for Transport’s (DfT’s) Acceleration Unit and aligning with the government’s Project Speed agenda will be key.
In June, the government announced a new Infrastructure Delivery Taskforce, named Project Speed, aimed at accelerating infrastructure projects to help rebuild the economy after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Similarly, the DfT’s Acceleration Unit has been launched to speed up the delivery of transport projects.
“Highways England is starting from a strong position. But if there’s collaboration with Project Speed and the Acceleration Unit, it could further improve Highways England’s performance, as well as helping other areas to improve their performance. That can only be a good thing. There’s a real opportunity there.”
As well as these challenges and opportunities, O’Sullivan believes maintaining a good relationship with the Office of Rail & Road (ORR), Highways England’s monitor, will be important across RIS2 and beyond.
“All relationships have to move on and develop. I think we’ve had a very constructive relationship with the ORR,” he said.
“There are examples of where they’ve recognised our performance isn’t as good as they would like. But then there are other areas where they express a view and I think it’s valid, but I don’t share that view.
“As our monitor, it’s entirely appropriate that the ORR expresses an independent view.”
O’Sullivan added: “That relationship must remain mutually respectful and professional, and both targeted at improving the performance of Highways England, but we can have a right to differ.”