Saturday 29 June 2013

The secret of where those 1970s motorways came from

My blog yesterday about the roads programme in the 1970s, and what a disaster it was - despite the Treasury's enthusiasm for it in their recent announcement - has brought a whole lot of half forgotten thoughts bubbling, as thoughts do, to the surface.  And some new ones entirely.

First, thanks to Gareth Aubrey, I've read an absolutely fascinating website about the unbuilt motorways and bypasses of Britain.  More about that in a moment.

The second thing I remembered was one of the first public meetings I ever went to.  I can't remember where it was exactly, only that it was organised by the Paddington Waterways Society, which played rather an important role in my upbringing, because my mother was the secretary.  It was probably in 1970 and was about the Westway flyover (pictured above), then looming in concrete and bitumen over our neighbourhood in Maida Vale.  I'm not sure how I came to be there.

"It is like a gun aimed directly at Islington," said one contributor, and there just dimly was the idea of how the frenetic road-building of the 1970s had also created the subsidised traffic that soon came to clog it.

And it could have been so much worse, as anyone can see driving along Westway today, with all the blocked exits that never quite became slip roads.  The terrible blight on so many cities by inner urban motorways on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s never quite came to fruition in London.

But as the website Pathetic Motorways says, it so nearly did.  This is their description of the extraordinary saga of the London Motorway Box, as the media called it, the little-lamented Ringways plan for London.  It was eventually scuppered when the GLC changed hands in 1975, but it was no coincidence that the Brixton Riots six years later took place in an area that had been blighted for more than a decade by the Motorway Box plan.

All of which is a way of saying that a shiver went down my spine on Thursday when the Treasury announced with pride "the biggest investment in our roads since the 1970s".  Does nobody remember the roads programme of the 1970s?

In fact, given the investment planned on another generation of nuclear white elephants, perhaps nobody remembers the 1970s at all - and Windscale, Dounreay, Torness and all the rest of those vast capital black holes, all bundled up in the huge pot of money we now know as The Deficit.

No institutional memory, that's the problem...

Finally, I had a vague memory about the UK motorway programme, which came to fruition in the 1970s, and where it originally came from.  The answer was a trip which the County Surveyors Society - the driving force behind Britain's road-building programme - made to see the amazing autobahns of Nazi Germany in 1937.  This is what one member of the delegation (R. A. Kidd) wrote some decades later:

"In all it was a wonderful experience, and one appreciated the German efficiency in the organisation of the whole trip.  The imprint on our minds of a concept of a network of motor roads resulted in the County Surveyors' plan for motor roads in Britain, which unfortunately was pigeon-holed by the then Ministry of Transport for many years.  In essence, however, it came to light in the Ministry's ultimate scheme, although the basic origin of this was probably never mentioned, or credit given to the Society." (quoted from A History of the County Surveyors' Society).

You bet it wasn't mentioned, and certainly not in the 1970s - only three decades since the Blitz - but, yes, the original inspiration came from Hitler's autobahns.

1 comment:

Simon Titley said...

Hitler got the idea for autobahns from Mussolini, not that that's a recommendation.