I’ve always been fascinated by road building. That might be because of my name (the sunken-lane ‘Holloways’ were the pre-Roman ‘motorways’ in southern England) or because my father worked on putting the M6 across Shap summit or even because I grew up a couple of miles from Britain’s first section of motorway, the Preston Bypass.
Long-distance roads are key to civilization. But this country – or at least the people who have run it – has long been in two minds about the personal freedom and massive economic benefits they can bring.
Before WW2, Germany and Italy were building motorways, and rest of war-ravaged Europe followed during post-war reconstruction. In Britain, as I’m endlessly pointing out, even by 1959 Britain had no motorways at all and was still using steam trains.
We had a burst of motorway building in the 1960s and 1970s, before the UK’s strong anti-roads sentiment started to get back into gear. Of course, there’s no excuse for the idiotic planners who thought ‘ring roads’ should go through cities (Birmingham) rather than around them, as they do in all continental cities.
So I think we were lucky that the Conservative government of 1979-1997 had a pretty robust attitude to driving motorways through. The M25 was finished and the M40 pushed through despite some very clever tricks by the anti-roads mob, including buying a field and selling it, sod by sod, to 10,000 owners around the world. Try and imagine no M40 today.
It’s weird to think that there will probably be no more motorways built in the UK. They are still being built in France and Germany, but it looks like that, for example, a London to Edinburgh motorway is now an impossibility.
But we still need capacity in certain areas. Business traffic and economic growth demand it. Last year London mayor Boris Johnson suggested that tunneling was the answer for both extra road capacity and taking traffic off the streets of a capital that lacks the urban motorways of Paris, Munich and Amsterdam.
Plenty of people called him bonkers but, as is often the case with Boris’s ideas, they are already in use overseas. Madrid, which has many urban motorways, has been part-burying the M30. In Amsterdam – which also has a ring of motorways - one motorway is set to be widened to 12 lanes and buried, while in Germany, sections of motorway are being covered with the covering being turned into gardens. In the US, Boston is digging-in the six-lane elevated urban motorway that crossed the city.
A few weeks ago I bought a book, sight unseen, called ‘Roads in Tunnel – Greater London Council’ (as I said, I’m fascinated by roads), dated December 1973. It turned out to contain the fully worked-up plans to build a road tunnel from Brixton to Battersea in southwest London.
I can’t find any reference to the scheme anywhere else, so I assume it was late throw of the dice in the face of massive opposition to the original London motorway box scheme.
The original plan – still in play back then – was to bring the M23 all the way to the South Circular road near Brixton and then to take cross-city traffic on an urban motorway to Battersea, over the Thames and meet up with the M41 at Shepherds Bush roundabout in west London.
Another sister tunnel was to run from Brixton to Greenwich to connect up with the A2 urban motorway (which did get built).
This scheme was a very early version of what’s currently happening across Europe. People don’t like urban motorways, but they like driving and having the shops stocked and goods delivered - so why not bury them?
With my road-building hat on, my manor of inner west London still needs that link road to bypass the bridges and narrow roads of Chelsea and Earl’s Court and free the streets for civilised life. So I can quite see tunnels could still be relevant to the capital as well as other big cities in the UK.
The chances, however, are slim. Hong Kong can build an airport on an island in the sea and the rest of world can bury motorways old and new. Britain, however, can only just manage a stretch of dual carriageway to Norwich.