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Homes Before Roads buried plans to build motorways in London.

Why would anyone want to dig them up again?

Steve Chambers

Steve Chambers

8 March 2020

The newly formed Greater London Council (GLC) reported its transport decisions in 1967. New primary urban motorways in London formed part of plans that also included significant changes to the bus network, reduced spending on public transport, and the development of the secondary road network. Yet this project came to nothing, except for a few useless stumps of motorway and an abandoned investigation into tunnelling underground.

The GLC declared “a decision by the Greater London Council which it is quite safe to say exceeds in the immensity of its scale and the importance of its repercussions any decision ever previously made by a local authority in this country”.

This quote could quite easily have come from Homes Before Roads, the political party formed to oppose these plans, or any other campaign group speaking of the environmental and social costs of the scheme. Instead it is the Greater London Council itself, proudly setting out its programme for new road building in 1967.

The GLC made some assumptions about what would happen in London between 1967 and 1981. They included an area larger than Greater London in their research which meant they predicted the population would increase. Had they included only Greater London they could not have ignored the population trends. Greater London population had been falling and continued to fall, eventually reaching a nadir in 1991. They predicted car ownership would more than double to 2.5 million in 1981. Cars per household was predicted to rise to 0.79 by 1981. This is higher than current levels.

The GLC made some predictions about how travel patterns would change. Twice as many families would own cars, car journeys to central London for work would increase by 150%, car journeys to central London for non-work purposes would increase by 200%. Rail journeys to central London would decline, bus journeys to work would decline by up to 50% and non-work bus journeys would decline by up to 50%. This expected decline in public transport seems to be the reason the report casually mentions no budget had been prepared for new public transport expenditure.

The technical details of the plans are covered incredibly well elsewhere. The new road building consisted of elevated highways that would encircle London, also providing radial routes into the centre. The plan makes clear that compulsory purchase and demolition of homes was necessary and claims this was worth the goal to “enable people to get about”. The costs were estimated in 1967 to be £860 million.

Londoners respond: Homes Before Roads

Homes Before Roads was formed as a political party to fight the 1970 Greater London Council election, on a platform of no new urban roads. They had candidates for 85 of the 100 available seats. They received 81,215 votes and were fourth overall in the elections, after the Liberals.

The political party was formed by London Motorway Action Group (LMAG). They were made up four civic societies, eight residents associations, thirteen action groups, two ratepayers associations and a property owners association. Taken as a whole, they were a predominantly middle class and pan-London organisation.

Although they didn't win any seats, they were successful in their objectives, breaking the political consensus that had developed that London needed new roads.

The urban motorway plan they objected to was cancelled on the first day of the new Labour GLC administration, elected in 1973. Fragments of the network had been constructed. 40 miles were built out of 350 that were planned. But these serve no purpose, terminating arbitrarily and go nowhere.

The campaign was mirrored in other cities such as Bristol and Carlisle that were successful in preventing new urban motorways. The plans resurfaced in London in the 1980s and were defeated again. This time by the weight of public opinion that had been shifted, and direct action was no longer required.

Plan B: Build roads in tunnel

Homes Before Roads successfully moved public opinion and political will against new urban motorways in London. By 1972 the Conservative administration of GLC, was starting to look for alternatives. On 30 October 1972 they commissioned a report about roads in tunnels by civil engineers Halcrow and Mott, Hay & Anderson. The report was published in December 1973. However, earlier that year the GLC had become Labour controlled and new roads were off the agenda. 40 years later and building new urban motorways in tunnels is seriously being considered again. So what does the 1973 report tells us?

It claimed tunnelling roads under London had become a viable option. The report claims three factors had made tunnelling viable. Firstly, the cost of land on the surface has become too high; secondly the technology for tunnelling had improved; and finally, the environmental costs of roads could be avoided.

The first two points are fair enough, but the third isn’t true. A new road is a new road however it is constructed. It will increase demand and cause pollution. The pollution does not remain in the tunnel. The tunnels and their traffic also must exit somewhere, bringing increased congestion and pollution where they do.

Central London is off limits because of the existing network of transport and service tunnels. Any tunnelling there would have to be very deep in order to avoid obstructions. Outside of the central area there is a network of main sewers, but these do not cause such a problem and can easily be avoided.

The technology is sufficiently advanced by 1973 that tunnelling is possible in any kind of geology. Dual tunnels of three lanes each are possible. Ventilation systems are required for tunnels over 400 metres. Three different systems are available for ventilation, with differing costs for construction, operation and management. Complex underground road junctions are possible.

The costs are broken down into tunnelling, internal construction and ventilation. In 1972 prices, an example is given for building two tunnels from Camberwell to Lewisham with a Peckham interchange on the surface. It had an estimated cost of £132.6M, with the equivalent surface highway for comparison estimated to be £70.1M. Almost double the cost. The report notes that tunnelling costs have gone down in the previous 15 years and predicts they will decline further. It is heavily implied in the report that tunnel costs will reach parity with roads built on the surface.

Thankfully because Homes Before Roads stepped in the GLC plans were prevented from being completed. Public opinion was successfully turned against the programme that favoured urban motorways over public transport. By 1972 the GLC were looking into continuing these plans by tunnelling underground but the resulting report was buried. Many of the assumptions and predictions were later proved wrong. Public transport use in London has increased at the expense of the car. Which makes it hard to understand why anyone would want to resurrect the new road plans decades later.

This piece is adapted from a series of blog posts originally published in 2014.

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