Highways England gets 'bizarre' rebrand and new chief exec

National Highways “not national in the sense that it doesn't cover the nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”, says AA
Photo: EthelRedThePetrolHead/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Highways England has been renamed National Highways, with detractors calling the move “bizarre” as the company will gain no new powers in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Acting chief executive Nick Harris will stay on permanently as the head of the government-owned company, which is responsible for operating, maintaining and improving England's motorways and major A roads.

The Department for Transport said today that the rebrand heralds a “new era for strategic roads” and will come with a renewed focus on road safety.

But – noting that the company will still be responsible for maintaining major roads only in England – AA president Edmund King said the company is “not national in the sense that it doesn't cover the nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.

He labelled the decision a “bizarre move”, noting that it had changed its name from the Highways Agency in 2015.

 "Drivers really don't care what it is called but they do care about having well-maintained, safe roads and motorways," he said.

"Ironically, many people still refer to it as the Highways Agency despite changing its name six years ago."

The company’s new name sparked anger in Wales last year when the Guardian reported on the leaked plans, with Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts calling the rebrand “beyond baffling” as powers over the operation and maintenance of highways are fully devolved.

“Given this Westminster government’s obsession with rowing back our devolution settlement, this rebrand is wrong, self-aggrandising and offensive,” she said.

And Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Sarah Olney today called the rebrand an “astonishing waste of time and money”.

Last year it was reported that the rebrand could cost £7m, but DfT has pushed back against this figure.

A spokesperson said the project would be managed in-house “wherever possible” and that costs would be kept to a minimum.

"Changes to branding will be minimal and carried out over time as part of routine maintenance and renewal," they said.

Nick Harris said he was “pleased to be taking up the reins at such an exciting time”. DfT is soon to launch its £27bn roads investment strategy – although it admitted last month that the plan must be reviewed in light of the government’s environmental commitments.

“As we deliver the second roads investment strategy ensuring the safety of all road users, the delivery of our work and the benefits to our customers remains at the centre of our organisation,” Harris said.

Harris was named acting chief exec in February, succeeding Jim O’Sullivan. He had been executive director of operations since 2016, and previously had senior roles at businesses including Thames Water and drainage and infrastructure company UKDN Waterflow.

DfT said in its announcement that Harris has the “proven track record needed to lead and transform a large and complex organisation”, including experience deploying large scale contracting and supply-chain management and operational delivery expertise.

He will lead the transformation of National Highways into a “global leader in road building and maintenance”, with a focus on road safety improvements, the department said.

Highways England chair Dipesh J Shah said he was “delighted” to make the appointment.

“Now, more than ever, our infrastructure schemes have an important and perhaps unique role to play in helping our economy to recover,” he said.

“Nick’s steady hand throughout the last few months has established a solid foundation to help us on our journey to transform how we work with our supply chain, how we deliver our net zero carbon and how we realise our digitalisation ambitions.”

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