Highways England Chief Executive announces departure following criticism over Smart Motorways

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Jim O’Sullivan has advised he is to stand down as Chief Executive of Highways England early next year.

The boss of Highways England is to stand down after criticism over the smart motorway policy.

Jim O’Sullivan, one of the country’s highest-paid transport officials, will leave the state-funded company responsible for operating England’s motorways early next year.

The move follows a turbulent 12 months at the organisation, which has been at the centre of a row over the roll-out of smart motorways, routes where the hard shoulder has been removed to create extra capacity.

According to The Times he was not asked to resign, although the government did not stand in the way of his departure.

Mr O’Sullivan attracted criticism within Whitehall over his refusal to concede that there was a significant problem with the system, repeatedly pointed to Highways England data showing that the safety record of smart roads was better than conventional routes.

However, public confidence in the system was heavily dented after a series of high-profile deaths, including of drivers who broke down without being able to reach a lay-by.

Speaking about his decision to step down Mr O’Sullivan said:

“The people in Highways England and our supply chain have achieved great things in the past five years and I consider it a privilege to have worked with them.

“Together with the DfT, our monitor ORR, Transport Focus and stakeholders across the sector we have done things that five years ago would not have been considered feasible.

“I leave Highways England well placed to deliver the second roads period and to prepare for the third. That makes it a good time to step down and I wish the sector and the company every success for the future.”

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

“I’d like to thank Jim O’Sullivan for his hard work and commitment over the past five years.

“His successor will start at an exciting time for the company as it embarks on our ambitious £27.4billion Second Roads Investment Strategy. The programme will deliver on this government’s vision to level-up our roads infrastructure, connecting communities, creating jobs and boosting growth.”

Highways England recently opened Britain’s biggest road project, the £1.5billion improvement of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon, a key route between the East coast ports and the Midlands. The project was delivered ahead of schedule and within budget.

The current flagship project to upgrade the M4 remains similarly on time and on budget.

Roger Lowe, Highways England Interim Chair, said:

“On behalf of the Board, I would like to thank Jim for the great commitment he has shown in leading Highways England through the first five-year Roads Investment Period and establishing a strong base for the recently agreed second phase.

“He has been instrumental in so many of the positive changes which benefit all our stakeholders.”

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