Top guest speaker for Express Manager degree students

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Nicola Bell MBE National Highways Nicola Bell MBE National Highways

Nicola Bell MBE. National Highways – ‘Roads connect people’

95 million miles travelled each year



Our sector, express management students enlightened from the very top with a melting pot of all things strategic roads during their route optimisation learning module.

Nicolla Bell, Executive Director for Major Projects at National Highways delivered an intense and motivated one hour expert keynote to our sectors next generation managers. (July 10th). The keynote to the Univ West London, Express Manager degree apprenticeship candidates treated the students to a full blown detail briefing on all things road from the very top. Starting with a passion of importance of road the keynote went through budgeting, planning and when you have to say No! KPIs in management. Green, infrastructure and even AI for future and the road planning was all in the mixing pot masterclass of roads and route optimisation.

Nicola joined the students to deliver the expert keynote during their route optimisation module in the express manager degree. The focus was on how roads deliver freight and connect people. ‘The strategic road network carries 68% of all freight.’


A road is not just a road, I grew up in a tiny village in Western Scotland and roads were key to my life. I am a civil engineer with a masters in transport planning, a track record in local authority and private sector before joining National Highways. Responsibilities have included the M25.

You may drive past some cones, but behind the scenes there is a lot going on.

Roads and who is responsible.

Behind the scene it's complex; the Strategic road network, all motorways and most trunk roads are responsibility of National Highways, (there is a definitive map of ten thousand miles and twenty thousand bridges on the National Highways web). At local authority area, county council is largely responsible, you may travel on their road before reaching a trunk road in our network.

Silverstone GP example from the weekend, ‘There was an embargo of works other than emergency, but the factor we can not control is accidents, a small shunt leads to a second incident a third and suddenly there is a major traffic issue.’

There is an army of inspectors out on the route network; knowledge comes in from the inspections daily, then add asset inspections, bridge inspections, central barrier inspections, layer on the projects and it’s a complex task. Dealing with issues is then categorised into different levels: immediate, twenty four hour, seven days etc. Balancing the decisions to deal with issues, choosing between a full road closure or multiple night closures, we add local input to get the best balance.

We have a daily spreadsheet on night road closures, we have worked hard with Royal Mail, other freight companies have signed up. Nicola explained a case around an Amazon DC. ‘If traffic levels are too high on the night of planned works, we will call off our works and re-schedule, but there is only finite time window and the job still needs to be done.’

When a permission has been given, things may change - a new housing estate gets planning, a new supermarket, a change in land use further up the network has impact that generates change. Each alter the impact of a junction, and its development.

National Highways is funded in a five year block to maintain and improve the strategic road network.

Nicola spoke about timescales in road change. Focused on the A14, Nicola, a former worker at Cambridgeshire Council.

‘The project began with more than ten years of lobbying before the investment case was made.’ It’s a joy today to see the result. Looking wider, A428 about to get on the ground, The Stonehenge tunnel is a big future project. Roads need to comply with many steps, the environment, a net gain, from bats to newts they all need a chance for survival mapped out in the planning process. We develop a full action plan, the volume of legal work is huge.

Going green

‘On vehicle fleet, we are aiming for net zero by 2030. We will have no direct vehicle emission vehicles by 2030. By 2040 none of our subcontractors on road build will have emission. This matches with 2050 no emission for vehicles on the network.’

The students rallied a series of green focus questions that Nicola answered.

‘Trying to get the right power to the right place, we don’t own the motorway service centres. One project is looking at massive battery stations for re-charge.’

‘The design manual – EV vehicles are heavier, we are looking at weight impact of the electric vehicles on the roads.’

‘Five year budget and vision to our own electric vehicles, committing to the electric vehicles is a cost and that goes in the five year future. Funding is needed to achieve the step and its included in the plans.’

There are times when we have to say no. There are times when a road is at absolute capacity and nothing else will solve the problem.

Looking at the future, asked about AI, Nicola explained AI is used in the road survey works, this all feeds into the route strategy documents and impacts on the five year plan of roads improvement. The more intel we have the better the reponses, our KPIs include delay times, safety, road work accuracy.