South London's lost motorways

Published on 04 May 2022

Completing the story of London's epic Ringways, we've just published our extensive histories of the Southern Radials, five more motorways that never saw the light of day.

If you're a regular visitor you'll know the Ringways, of course. It's the story of London's vast urban motorway network, planned in the 1960s but never built. The missing network of ring roads and radial routes still casts a long shadow over the city today, from sterilised patches of land to unfinished stubs of road and awkward buildings that were designed to fit in alongside the motorways.

We've been piecing together the history of the project for almost 20 years, and our pages about it were taken offline in 2017 for an extensive and in-depth rewrite. They've been returning in batches since then, and now the last of the missing pages have returned: the Southern Radials, comprising the A3, M23, A20, A2 and something called Parkway E.

It's been a long wait, but hopefully worth it. This set of pages will examine in detail the story of the A3, a road almost entirely improved to near-motorway standards which is just missing its mysterious final section. We look at the M23, perhaps the UK's most famously unfinished motorway, and its breathtakingly destructive route through suburban South London. We'll meet a road called Parkway E, which never left a single physical trace on the ground, despite having a history going back to the early 1900s. There's the A20 and A20(M), a plan that looked more certain and less troublesome than almost any other road project in London but which still ended up on the scrapheap. And we'll finish with the A2 and A2(M), a motorway plan older than the Ringways that survived them in disguise.

Artist's impression of the Tibbet's Corner underpass on the A3. It was built, but where would the road go next? Click to enlarge
Artist's impression of the Tibbet's Corner underpass on the A3. It was built, but where would the road go next? Click to enlarge

What's new?

Just like all our other Ringways pages, these five stories have been rewritten from the ground up, drawing on  fifteen additional years of exhaustive research. Where before we could only give a very simple account - or even, in one or two cases, almost no account at all - you'll now find a full and detailed history, with plenty of new stories to tell.

Brand new, for example, is the story of how the A20(M) project went up against a solitary pub, and lost, thanks to the fact that the pub had one of the UK's leading planning lawyers on its side: a man who would come back to haunt not just the A20, but all of the GLC's motorway plans.

Plus, of course, these pages benefit from the other changes common to all our Ringways pages:

  • Totally new text, new research, new stories and new illustrations
  • Detailed route maps with junction layouts, based on Ordnance Survey mapping
  • Full costings of each route, where available, with 2014 equivalents for comparison
  • Full lists of references and picture sources

They're a brilliant read and we hope you enjoy them.

What's next?

The publication of the Southern Radials today means that all of our Ringways pages are finally back online, after a years-long hiatus. They've been missed, we know, but as they stood in 2017 they were years behind the research and barely a shadow of the new versions, so we hope you agree that it's been worth the wait.

The project isn't yet over, though. Our pages so far all focus on the Ringways and the radial motorways that connect them, which the Greater London Council referred to as its Primary Road Network. Later in 2022 we'll be publishing a brand new set of pages about the GLC's Secondary Road Network - largely made up of London's existing main roads, but which also included a series of other major projects. Some you will recognise, like the A40(M) Westway. Others, like the Richmond Hill Tunnel, you won't.

And before the Secondary Road Network pages go online, there will be two other brand new pages which we hope to publish this summer. They will be very different in style and content - an alternate history that will attempt to paint a picture of what London might look like if the Ringways had been built. London with the Ringways will look at what sort of a city we'd have if it had gained its dartboard of motorways, while Driving the Ringways will take a virtual drive around the completed motorway network, describing the sights and sounds of a very different place.

All that is to come, hopefully by the end of the year. For now, though, please enjoy our latest pages, the story of the Southern Radials, and a glimpse of the ambitious motorways planned for an urban environment where good roads are few and far between.

Elsewhere on
Roads.org.uk...

Ringways

The story of an incredible plan to reshape London into a city of motorways, with the history from creation to cancellation and details on every unbuilt road.

Comments

Enjoyed reading the latest on the Ringways series.

One thing that would like to see touched upon with the upcoming London with Ringways article, is if the eventual shift towards pedestrianisation, cycle routes and other measures would have unfolded differently in this alternate timeline with a more positive or equitable outcome for everyone involved compared to what ended up happening, where various road schemes were killed off over the past few decades at the expense of the motorist on top of other harsher policies.

Not 100% certain if the Ringways and related schemes would by themselves be the cure-all for London some imagine it to be, aside from being slightly less burdensome on the motorist navigating their way around London. Maybe if it was paired with other unbuilt London projects over the past few decades, be it the elevated walkways like the City of London Pedway scheme (plus the Traffic in Towns report), London Underline, various post-war London rail schemes following an altogether different trajectory and a relatively more lenient Metropolitan Greenbelt.

Would like to find out more about the proposals to build a Secondary Road through what became known as Dagenham Corridor as mentioned in the M12 as well as the A12 and M13 pages. Get that it was to run from a second Thamesmead Crossing along the Dagenham Corridor up to Whalebone Lane Interchange, however was anything more ambitious envisaged for the A1112 besides a future north-south flyover up to the M12?

Looking forward to the upcoming instalments in the series.

Mikey C 7 May 2022

Fascinating stuff. A minor correction, is that the A2 Kidbrooke junction isn't a roundabout. It's a flat junction with traffic lights affecting through traffic in one direction only.

It is now, but when it opened it was a roundabout! I'll amend the text to make that clearer.

Maybe I've somehow wiped it from my mind, but I have no recollection of that junction being anything other than the flat junction it is now. My 1990 A-Z has it in its current form for example.

It was originally designed as a 3 arm roaundabout, When the GLC was abolished and Bullen and Partners took over in 1986, it was redesigned as a traffic signal controlled junction, and realignment of the bend from the A102(M) heading south east. There is buried under the road the remains of the original retaining wall and a subway that was finished, and subsequently demolished before seeing traffic. A new retaining wall to the new alignment and to provide the hard shoulder was then built.

As the road actually opened in 1988, are you saying that the roundabout was demolished before the road actually opened? Do any photos exist of this layout, as someone who must have stopped at the current traffic lights hundreds of times!

The roundabout layout wasn't completed, we were building the structures to the original GLC design, when it was changed. It's a long time ago, I did my HNC project on the scheme which is in the loft somewhere maybe. 'Borrowed' some progress photos to stick in it.

Thank you for clarifying - I was under the impression that the roundabout did exist and was later replaced with the signals. I see now that was wrong. I'll amend the article to reflect this.

Fraser M 9 May 2022

Frankly, I can't see London really moving forward without at least some attempt to handle its road traffic. Cycling and walking just ain't going to make much difference, and the buses are already frequent enough and far cheaper than where I live near Crewe..

The problem is politics - since the turn of the Centaury responsibility for roads within London has been turned over to the GLA whose members are elected by London residents. Said residents are, particularly those residing towards the centre are very much anti-car and as such its political suicide for any party to propose any real roadbuilding without suffering at the ballot box.

One of the reasons we got a whole bunch of improvements to Londons roads in the late 1980s / 1990s was because Ms Thatcher abolished the GLC and responsibility for London's strategic road network came under the DfT - where what Londoners may have thought of the schemes didn't really matter as London MPs only form a small proportion of MPs overall thus the political fallout was minor even if large chunks of London were opposed to them.

So if you want to have any significant roadbuilding you will need to repeat this process and once again have the DfT take back control of the strategic road network in London from the GLA. As you can imagine that won't go down well at all because its effectively reversing devolution of powers (particularly if its done to try and circumnavigate the feelings of Londoners) and will be opposed just as strongly as if the Westminster Government tried to take back control of roads in Scotland or Wales.

These original schemes failed because they attempted to provide for seamless movement for almost all levels of traffic, so the infrastructure needed for this meant too much destruction of the existing housing etc and as you say, politics took over. However, the trouble with the 'politics' is that any improvements at all became impossible. My view is that it is impossible to handle peak hours traffic, if people want to get to and from work, then they can use the vast London public transport system. HOwever this still leaves a need to handle non-peak traffic and especially commercial movements. So a targeted programme of enhancements would be of benefit.

Sw16 14 June 2022

The image on the page tells the story. One of the most attractive (architecturally) areas of Sw16, opening onto Tooting Common with the lido nearby. Utterly staggering to think they planned to sweep it all away. The influence of Surrey Council on the M23 plans must have played a significant role in advancing plans for it all. Super work Chris - thank you

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Picture credits

  • Plan of M23 terminus on Tulse Hill Link extracted from MT 106/219.
  • Artist's impression of Tibbet's Corner is extracted from GLC/TD/C/36/013.
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Published4 May 2022

Last updated4 May 2022