Roads.org.uk is full of stories and discussion about the history of the road network. But to make sense of it all, it's important to understand the basic timeline of events to put it all into context. Here, then, is a potted history of Britain's road network from the turn of the twentieth century to the present.

The Road Board is set up to build and maintain roads
Roads are numbered for the first time
The UK's first motorway opens at Preston, Lancashire
The first 1000 miles of motorway are completed
Oil crisis: emergency speed limits are enacted and road building slows
Margaret Thatcher opens the final section of the M25
Protests at Twyford Down change the way Governments approach roadbuilding
New Labour introduce the "New Deal for Transport"
The first tolled motorway opens around the north of Birmingham

Making a start

The motor car first became a real concern for the authorities just before the Great War, when the inadequacy of the unsurfaced and largely unmaintained road network was acknowledged by the government. They reacted by setting up the Road Board, which collected taxes from motorists and spent the money on surfacing and improving the roads.

The main problem that the Road Board faced was not financial - its members acknowledged that the taxes they collected left them swimming in funds. The problem was actually that they couldn't spend the money fast enough. A substitute for real action was found in simply having as many roads metalled as possible, with relatively few improvements, bypasses or new alignments being considered.

The Board began to address this in 1914 by carrying out the preliminary work necessary to classify the roads of the United Kingdom, through extensive traffic surveys, and it was hoped that eventually this would give them a clear picture of which routes required prioritisation and where actual improvement work was needed.

The delays caused by the First World War and the lethargic progress of the Board led to the government starting to help itself to what should have been ringfenced funds. Eventually, deciding the Board was too slow, the government replaced it with the Ministry of Transport. The new body was much more powerful but didn't have the luxury of a guaranteed income. Nonetheless, it completed the surveys, classified the road network and gave the roads numbers that helped to organise its maintenance and also aided navigation. The system of A and B roads was unveiled to much acclaim in 1922.

Between the wars, progress on the road network was accelerated, but still really quite slow. London gained a number of new dual carriageways running out of the city to the countryside (but rarely any further), with grand names like the A4 Great West Road. The industrial north saw the occasional new route, like the A580 Liverpool to East Lancashire Road, the Queensway Tunnel under the Mersey (both opened 1934) and a handful of others. This progress was, of course, halted immediately on the outbreak of war.

The new post-war Britain

1948: the Special Roads Act is proposed
1948: the Special Roads Act is proposed

Work actually progressed at the height of the Second World War, planning the transport infrastructure Britain would require when the enemy had been vanquished. The period immediately following the end of the war was one of shortages and there was little money to spend on transport, but already it was known that new roads would be built once the situation improved.

The first step came in 1949. Legislation passed through parliament called the 'Special Roads Act', which set up the legal framework for a new type of road that wasn't a public right of way like others, and could easily be restricted to motorised traffic. This was the first real action towards motorway building.

The idea for 'motor roads', where pedestrians, cyclists and horses would be kept out of the way, had existed long before this. Plans had existed in the 1920s, promoted by private organisations or individuals. These were mostly along the lines of early Italian Autostrade, and though private bills came before Parliament on several occasions, they never received backing from the government. The law passed in 1949 made things much simpler, and confirmed Britain's intention to participate in the European and American trend for building new access-controlled high speed roads. Its powers were later consolidated with other regulations in the Highways Act 1959, meaning that, ironically, only a tiny number of roads were ever built using the landmark 1949 legislation.

1956: a bypass for Preston
1956: a bypass for Preston

It was only in 1956 that the government actually set about using the legislative tool it had created seven years previously. Work started on a short, experimental motorway to bypass the industrial town of Preston in Lancashire. The choice wasn't as unlikely as it might first seem.

Preston was a major bottleneck on the road between the industrial heartlands of Lancashire and Scotland, the meeting point of traffic from Liverpool, Manchester and the Colne valley on the way north, and the only way to the thriving resort of Blackpool. Its bypass had been in planning for many years, and in many ways it was fitting that the town was to benefit from the first motorway push.

1958: the first motorway
1958: the first motorway

Curiously, this was not actually the first bit of motorway construction. A year or two previously, Lancashire County Council was offered a large amount of waste material by a company doing quarrying work in the Manchester area. As the material was free, the Council put it to use, and started piling it up on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal near Barton, forming embankments to a bridge. At the time this was the site of a proposed Stretford and Eccles bypass, but by the time it was built several years later, using those embankments, the scheme had been upgraded to become the first section of the M62.

The Preston Bypass, meanwhile, was a huge success, and was already being described as the first section of a large network. Work on three other sections of motorway, totalling about eighty miles, was already well under way when the Bypass opened.

1959: the first motorway services
1959: the first motorway services

It was in December 1959 that the first section of M1 opened to traffic: almost 60 miles of six-lane motorway plus various spurs. Nothing like it had been seen before in the UK. It was hailed by the press as an icon of the resurgent post-war Britain, and its original service area, Watford Gap, became a tourist attraction. Its design capacity was for 14,000 vehicles per day.

The M1 lasted, without many changes, for almost fifty years before major work began to increase its capacity, by which time it was struggling to handle the amount of traffic wanting to use it. The original section is now almost entirely widened or equipped with hard shoulder running.

Technicolor optimism: the 1960s

It is well enough established that the 1960s was - among many other things - a decade of motorway mania. The political zeitgeist was about securing economic growth for as long as possible, and in true post-war fashion, building things using lots of concrete was seen as the best way to do this. Urban regeneration and diesel power for the railways was only the start. In the early 1960s a government target was set to build 1,000 miles of motorway by the end of the decade. Not only was it upheld through several changes of government, it was also achieved.

1960s: the Ministry of Transport favours roads over rail
1960s: the Ministry of Transport favours roads over rail

Moreover, motorways began to enter the cultural currency in the UK. You could read about the latest road openings and proposals in the newspapers (who were, of course, all in favour); you could see progress being heralded in unfeasibly excitable tones on cinema newsreels. There was no escape. Pick up the latest crime thriller and you would find that, instead of sinister deeds on a romantic steam train, Agatha Christie was now writing about her villains making a fast getaway on the fictional M7. Switch on the television and you would see Captain Scarlet speeding to the rescue on the M21. If you tired of it all, you could always join your children playing with their electronic Minic Motorway set (like slot-car racing, but slightly more domestic, with roundabouts and, yes, realistic motorway signs).

Transport policy was, of course, centred on road building. The notorious Beeching Report was greeted with open arms. Yes, it rationalised an unwieldy rail network, but just think of all the money it would save that could be spent on the motorways! In the years that followed, the Ministry of Transport was said to have regularly plundered the rail budget to build more roads. A policy statement was made that during the 1970s, the roads budget would remain stable, with an increasing proportion of the money being diverted to urban road building as the rural inter-city network was completed.

1966: the Severn Bridge
1966: the Severn Bridge

By 1966 it was possible to travel between Birmingham and Lancaster by motorway, most of the way from London to Leeds, across the Severn between England and Wales, and on substantial parts of each of the two routes between London and Dover. The Greater London Council had also done their bit, unveiling the London Motorway Box - shortly afterwards named Ringway 1 - the first part of a huge network of new roads ploughing through the capital.

Three years later, the road building machine seemed unstoppable. Local authorities were no longer enlisted as agents for new road construction and instead a production line had been formed, with regional Road Construction Units overseeing the laying of tarmac on an unprecedented scale. The target for one thousand miles of motorway was met with some ease. The government pledged to build another thousand miles in the next decade, reinforcing its commitment to urban roads in the coming years. At around the same time, lengthy and complex traffic surveys were beginning to report back: GlasgowMerseyside, Manchester and London - among many others - were all clamouring for the money to sweep away all that was old and build themselves a network of futuristic urban highways.

1969: 1000 miles of motorway completed
1969: 1000 miles of motorway completed

The motorway specification was also improved. Crash barriers were being built on all new routes and retro-fitted on old ones, and the very first electronic matrix signs were installed in the central reservation of the M4 near the Severn Bridge. This, and the high specification for construction, made British motorways easily the most technologically evolved in Europe, if not the world.

It was inevitable that the tide would turn. In many ways it already had. The opening of the A40(M) Westway, an elevated motorway approaching the centre of London and one of the first segments of the Ringway network to be built, has been described as the crucial turning point in public opinion. At its opening, the media showed the whole of Britain the stark reality of urban road construction, and it bore little resemblance to the airy, utopian pencil sketches they had been shown by the architects. Six lanes of motorway traffic now ran at first-floor level alongside otherwise pleasant Victorian homes through more than a mile of West London suburbia. The campaigns against urban motorways, growing for some time, could not have asked for better publicity. Few urban roads on the same scale were ever built in the UK.

The swift about-turn in policy, re-focussing investment back on rural inter-urban routes, was short lived anyway.

The big problem: oil

1976: the oil crisis and political problems delay the road programme
1976: the oil crisis and political problems delay the road programme

It was very shorty afterwards that the energy crisis struck, with Middle East oil rising in price and coal miners on strike. Road construction came to a sudden halt. Resuming normal life afterwards, the government found itself shaken by Britain's dependency on oil, and never really invested as much money in road building again.

The age of frenetic road construction was coming to an end anyway. Written answers in Hansard show that in the mid-1960s the Ministry of Transport was able to spend up to 80% of its trunk road budget on new road building. Ten years on, and all those new roads started to require routine maintenance. As the motorway mileage built up, so did the running costs, which eventually took up the majority of the government's trunk road spending. The government's own research was also starting to show that it was simply not viable to provide roadspace for anyone who wished to drive.

The next thousand-mile target was missed at the end of the 1970s, but there was little notice taken of the fact. It may well have seemed that the oil crisis had caused a permanent change of plan, but it was not quite so. Despite a lull in road openings - 1984 was particularly notable in seeing only two new sections opened, neither of any overwhelming significance - there was a resurgence to follow.

It was Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government that produced, half way through its third term in office, the 1989 White Paper titled "Roads for Prosperity". Its central theme was that roads were good for the economy, and there hadn't been enough road building in the recent past, and therefore it was about time we started laying some more tarmac. The Paper wanted change, and rapidly, outlining scores of road improvements, widenings, new routes, bypasses and so on covering most of the UK. It was radical enough to resurrect a number of plans that had previously been scrapped, including an extremely controversial idea to upgrade London's South Circular Road.

1986: the M25 completed
1986: the M25 completed

The paper never made it through Parliament, but this did little to reduce Thatcher's association with road construction (along with much else). The famous line claiming that "a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure" is, apparently, a misquotation and was actually uttered by one Loelia Ponsonby (perhaps the perfect name for a person who sneers at buses), but it reflects rather nicely the attitude of Thatcherite politics towards motorised transport.

Despite the White Paper's failure, some of its road schemes were pushed through afterwards without its help. Thatcher personally opened the final section of M25 in 1986 as a symbol of her support for road building. Within a few weeks the road was running beyond its intended capacity.

Falling from grace

1991: the M40 opens amid controversy
1991: the M40 opens amid controversy

The early 1990s were a period of economic recession. Some urgently needed road schemes were approved despite the shortage of government funds; the M20's long-awaited completion, for example, was a key part of the Channel Tunnel's infrastructure.

The M40 between Oxford and Birmingham opened, almost in one go, in 1991 - the last long distance route to built in Britain. The latter took such care over environmental issues that some parts of the route have sharp corners, which take liberties with the motorway design standards, in order to avoid the route passing through Sites of Special Scientific Interest that would have been happily bulldozed a decade or two earlier. Before the road was opened, several Police cars were used to safety-test it, repeatedly taking one particular corner at high speeds to make sure it was safe for public use.

1993: Twyford Down
1993: Twyford Down

The largest blow to road construction was yet to come. A three-mile gap in the M3 London to Southampton motorway, where six lanes of motorway traffic were forced back onto the old A33 Winchester Bypass, had caused problems for many years. The A33 had been constructed in the 1920s as a very early dual carriageway, and by the 1990s was carrying all the M3's traffic load on two narrow two-lane carriageways, with the infamous Hockley traffic lights part way along. The queues were legendary. The main problem - and the reason the bypass had been left to fester for so long - was the geography of the area. The existing bypass hugged the contours of the river and its line was completely unsuitable for a modern motorway. To the north-west was Winchester; to the south-east was St Catherine's Hill, an ancient fortress; and beyond it Twyford Down, a site of particular natural interest and beauty. There was no easy way through, and Twyford Down drew the short straw.

The Treasury, cash-poor and in the depths of a recession, told the Department of Transport that the additional £75m was not available for the least obtrusive solution, which was to tunnel the road underneath the Down. Instead a cutting was excavated through the site. Whole books have been written about what happened as construction progressed, but it neatly summarises the situation to say that there have been claims that the total cost of policing the crowds of protesters - at one point numbering into the tens of thousands - more than cancelled out the saving that was made by not building a tunnel in the first place.

Road transport took such a hit at Twyford Down that, after the opening of the M3 in 1994, it never regained anything like its previous high profile or spending priority. In fact, in the years that followed, it became steadily more unpopular.

New Labour and the Ten Year Transport Plan

1997: a new Government scraps the road programme
1997: a new Government scraps the road programme

Further changes followed the change of government in the 1997 elections; particularly when Tony Blair's new Transport Minister John Prescott announced the 'New Deal for Transport', which effectively took any remaining road construction plans and put them through a shredder.

The rail network - which had been hurriedly privatised in the closing days of the Conservative government - was brought to the front line as the new favourite way of moving people around, though Blair resisted the repeated calls to re-nationalise it. Meanwhile, Prescott was keen to prove his penchant for cancelling road schemes, and was very vocal in scrapping scores of plans, including the Hastings bypass, numerous motorway widening projects, the dualling of roads like the A66, and (most notoriously) one half of the Polegate Bypass. The other half was still built and opened.

The much-fęted 'Ten Year Transport Plan' - despite the halting of road construction - allowed Prescott to claim that Britain was going to get a road network equal to that of France or Spain. What exactly he meant by this is not clear, but early signs for the future of road transport were bleak.

2000: the M60 completed
2000: the M60 completed

Announced proudly as the very last new motorway that would receive public funding, the final section of the M60 Manchester Outer Ring Road opened to traffic in 2000. For the first time since the start of work on the Preston Bypass in 1956, there were no new motorways under construction in the UK. Interestingly, the rest of the M60 was made by annexing sections of other motorways, one of which was the M63 crossing the Barton High Level Bridge, where Lancashire County Council had piled up embankments in the mid-1950s. The first and last moments of a forty-four year chain of continuous motorway construction work took place on the same road.

Further new roads continued to open, however. In fact, by the time the M60 was carrying its first vehicles, the Ten Year Transport Plan had been forgotten and many of Prescott's cancellations were coming back from the dead, notably the A66 dualling project.

2001: the M6 Toll
2001: the M6 Toll

In December 2003, 27 miles of new motorway were opened, forming a northern bypass for Birmingham and uniquely charging motorists who used it - the now famous M6 Toll. The government was more than happy to take credit for this and its ministers were present to beam at the cameras as the ribbon was cut, despite them having made several attempts to cancel it. The contract with the Midland Expressway consortium had actually been signed two parliamentary terms before, in 1991.

Today, some roads continue to be built - Scotland, now in control of its own affairs, is plugging the gaps in its central belt road network, including some rather bold plans for several miles of new urban motorway in Glasgow. But to say there has been a reversal is misleading. Over the last two decades road transport has been steadily going out of fashion - in political circles at least - and today many of the measures that are regarded as being rather daringly in the motorist's favour are simply concerned with squeezing more capacity out of one of the developed world's most congested road networks.

With thanks to Emrys Jones, Danny Turner, Paul Aston and Andy for corrections to this page.

What's new

Sorry, wrong number

Road numbering is a system with clear rules. What happens when the people responsible for numbering roads don't follow them?

We need to talk about Wisley

National Highways are spending a third of a billion pounds rebuilding one of the most congested junctions on the M25. Is it money well spent?

Oxford's Ground Zero

Oxford's Zero Emission Zone is just a trial, but transport policy in Oxford has become the catalyst for pitched battles and drawn in protestors from across the UK. What's happening to this genteel university town?

Share this page

Have you seen...

North Cross Route

The route and the history of the North Cross Route, proposed in the 1960s as the northern side of London's innermost motorway ring road.

About this page


Last updated