The Future of Roads

ABSTRACT This article begins by using a single stretch of road, the A57, to explore the history and politics of the road in postwar Britain, and in particular the disappearance of the great postwar planning schemes into ‘route management strategies’ – part of a general, post-Thatcherite suspicion of the public sphere, planners and big government. It argues that road politics have also gone quiet since the great protests of the early 1990s because, in our newly outsourced public sphere where roads are largely built through private finance initiatives and contracted out to local authorities, no one who wants to protest against a road can be sure who or what to protest against. The article concludes that, while much can be learnt from the road protestors of the 1990s, we also need to acknowledge the aesthetic and emotional appeal of roads for motorists if we are to address how to persuade them to use more sustainable forms of transport.  

You can learn much about recent British history and politics just from driving along a single stretch of road. Our collective hopes and fears about the kind of society we want to live in lie buried in the asphalt. The history of roads is the history of ourselves: our desire for community and our fears about its fragility; our natural instinct to expand the possibilities of life set against our premonitions of death, destruction and loss; and our fierce arguments about what is valuable and beautiful about the world. But this history, like the road itself, is full of loose ends and detours, unfinished stories and stalled narratives. 

Take the A57, which begins at the junction with Liverpool’s Dock Road, about five minutes drive from where I work. You head out of town on the Prescot Road, a 1930s landscaped parkway lined by semis in that Stockbroker Tudor style that Osbert Lancaster called ‘bypass variegated’, the work of the speculative builders who were stopped in their tracks by the postwar planning system. Then the road suddenly becomes a bendy single carriageway as you are shunted off what used to be the dead-straight A57 onto the downgraded, detrunked road. By the time you reach Eccles on the Manchester outskirts, you are trapped in a maze of roundabouts, before the A57 finally has its motorway moment: the Mancunian Way.

The Mancunian Way, or A57 (M), is the illegitimate child of the City of Manchester Plan, published a month after VE Day in June 1945 – one of the most ambitious of the great provincial postwar planning schemes. It planned to rebuild Manchester over the next 50 years, sweeping away its obsolete Victorian infrastructure and replacing it with ‘the city beautiful’, a vision influenced by Ebenezer Howard’s garden city movement. Mancunians would be moved out of their city centre slums and factories to live and work in the arcadian outskirts. The new Manchester, wrote the City Surveyor, Roland Nicholas, would shake off the prewar drift into ‘depopulation, economic decline, cultural apathy and social dissolution’, and enter ‘a nobler, braver age in which the human race will be master of its fate’. Opening a huge exhibition of the plan at Manchester City Art Gallery, W.S. Morrison, Minister of Town and Country Planning, called it a ‘stupendous feat’ and ‘an example to the rest of England in constructive and positive planning’.[1]

These ambitious plans depended on one thing: roads. Nicholas opened his discussion on Manchester’s existing roads with the then obligatory quote from Le Corbusier (‘If once we consider seriously the problem of the street and arrive at a solution, our existing great cities will be shaken to their foundations and the age of town planning will have begun’) and reminded his readers not to be lulled into complacency by the quiet wartime traffic. Prewar tinkering like road widening and one-way streets had ‘served only to defer for the time being the evil day of complete strangulation’. Traffic saturation could only be halted by a complete overhaul of the roads. ‘The time for expensive makeshifts and unsatisfactory palliatives is past,’ he argued. ‘We must have a road network properly designed to serve its essential purpose – the smooth, safe and speedy passage of a vastly expanded volume of motor traffic.’ His solution (copied by other cities, including London) was to alter the road pattern from something like the spokes of a rimless bicycle wheel to a spider’s web – four ring roads linked by lots of radials. Wherever possible the new roads would be parkways, with trees and flowers on the verges and central reservations. In the centre, roads would be widened like Baron Haussman’s Parisian boulevards, the River Irwell covered over with a giant roundabout and whole streets flattened to make a processional route from the town hall to the law courts.[2]

At the heart of the plan was the City Circle, an inner ring road reaching right into the heart of Manchester which aimed to take maximum advantage of bomb damage but which would still require large-scale demolition. But none of these planned roads was built, even though the plans remained on the drawing board for years and in fact became ever more ambitious. In the early 1960s, a revised version planned to build an elevated roundabout the size of four football pitches in the city centre, and ship pedestrians up to pavements in the sky. Again the plans stalled, although there are still remnants of these first-floor ‘pedways’ around the half-built university precinct on Oxford Road. Instead, the first major road to be built in the city after the war was the Mancunian Way, and it was meant as a stopgap, relieving the city centre from heavy cross traffic until the inner ring road was built. The City Circle remained on the drawing board well into the 1970s, by which time the Guardian had christened it the ‘Eternity Ring’, the council had run out of money to build it and urban motorways were terminally passé anyway.

The signs leading to the Mancunian Way now read ‘ring road’, but this isn’t the City Circle. It is the Manchester and Salford Inner Relief Route, opened in July 2002 just in time for the Commonwealth Games. It is a ragtag-and-bobtail assortment of roads (new, old, improved and unimproved) tacked together, the piecemeal approach that has so often characterised roadbuilding in Britain since the salad days of flyover-building. As it turned out, the time for ‘expensive makeshifts and unsatisfactory palliatives’ had not passed after all. In Manchester, like almost everywhere else in Britain, the road system is made up of the modest remnants of more utopian schemes. But the ‘evil day of complete strangulation’ has not quite arrived either; the traffic generally moves, if slowly for much of the time.

If you leave the Mancunian Way at the Ardwick flyover, and continue driving south along the A57, eventually you reach a roundabout at Mottram Moor, where the road again reverts to a single carriageway. Ahead of you is the line of the Longdendale bypass, a three-and-a-half mile planned road that would curve round the congested villages of Mottram, Hollingworth and Tintwhistle. The route more or less follows that of the now defunct Manchester-Sheffield motorway, a road planned in the 1960s that was meant to run all the way from the Mancunian Way to the M1.

Plans for the Longdendale bypass appeared in the notorious 1989 Tory white paper Roads for Prosperity, which announced the massive roadbuilding programme that sparked off the 1990s road protests at places like Twyford Down, Newbury and the M11 Link. But in 1994, at the height of this anti-roads movement, the bypass was cancelled. In 1998 New Labour’s New Deal for Transport reinstated it, but because of the time since the cancellation, the planning process had to start all over again. In 2001, a Public Participation exercise, including a ‘stakeholder seminar’, found that 90% of local people favoured the bypass. The pro-roaders argued that life for the people who lived along the narrow existing road through the three villages was becoming unbearable. But a group of local and national activists, from Friends of the Earth to the Ramblers Association, was also campaigning against the bypass. They feared it was another step by stealth to a motorway across the Peak District.

As is now common in our marketised public sphere, the inquiry into the Longdendale bypass was outsourced to a private company called Persona Associates and it opened in June 2007. But the Inspector dramatically stopped the inquiry that September after the Highways Agency admitted getting its figures wrong, and the inquiry was adjourned while the traffic forecasts were recalculated. By then, the legal, design and consultation fees – that is, before the building of any actual road – had already come to £1.3m. Then in March 2009 the regional development agency Four North West, worried about the spiralling costs of the project in a recession, said it could not commit funding before 2016, and the Highways Agency promptly withdrew from the inquiry. The bypass will not now be built, at least not for another decade. Meanwhile, the traffic on the existing A57 road has got worse, and the millstone terraced houses that line the route have been blackened by years of petrol fumes. There is a near-permanent queue of traffic here and it only takes one broken-down lorry to cause mayhem.  There are home-made signs all along the road saying ‘Stand and deliver the bypass now’ or ‘No bypass, boneheads’.

Living in a road-sceptical age

All the rich and complex history of our roads over the last few decades can be found along the A57: the great utopian schemes superseded by make-do-and-mend; the plans announced with great fanfare followed by the tetchy ‘stakeholder seminars’; the spectacular elevated urban motorways replaced by roads buried inside tunnels to hide them from an embarrassed world. But these historical contrasts can also be overdone. There is a tendency to caricature the planners of the immediate postwar era, like those who produced the City of Manchester plan. It is now customary to dismiss these utopian schemes as unworkable or even dystopian, infected by a historical arrogance about their capacity to remake the world. This reflex dismissal is part of a general, post-Thatcherite suspicion of the public sphere, planners and big government. But it is infected by its own kind of historical arrogance, a suggestion that our forebears were stupider than us, criminally naïve about the world in thrall to the car that they were creating. In reality, many of these schemes were flawed attempts to manage cars and make life with roads bearable. Roland Nicholas and his counterparts in other British cities knew perfectly well the damage that cars could cause.

We live in a road-sceptical age. It is very rare nowadays to see a road described in anything other than negative or non-committal terms; even the advocates of roadbuilding present roads as a necessary evil. When the Mancunian Way was built, the Manchester Evening News lauded it as the ‘highway in the sky’ and the city council named its own newspaper after the road. But today a road is laid without any expectation of thanks or applause, which is just as well since it never receives any. While architecture is now dominated by star names who invest their energies in flagship projects in city centres, roads are built by the shadowy machinery of government and sub-contractors.

Road politics have also gone quiet lately. This is not, contrary to popular belief, because fewer roads have been built since the Tories left office. In June 1997, the deputy prime minister John Prescott made his famous promise: ‘I will have failed if in five years time there are not many more people using public transport and far fewer journeys by car. It’s a tall order, but I urge you to hold me to it.’[3] But in December 2000, he also began the rehabilitation of roadbuilding by announcing funding of £4bn for 39 major road schemes. By 2008 Labour had quietly approved massive widening programmes for the M25, M1 and M6 along with many local roads and bypasses – a building programme more than double the size of the Tory one that had sparked the famous protests of the 1990s.

Ever since the turn of the millennium there have been rumblings of a return to direct action against roadbuilding. Most of the new building schemes have inspired local protest campaigns, and Rebecca Lush, one of the ‘Twyford Six’ jailed in 1993 for breaking an injunction banning them from Twyford Down, set up a national alliance called RoadBlock aimed at bringing these campaigns together. But while Lush achieved brief notoriety for shoving a custard pie in Jeremy Clarkson’s face, these discrete campaigns have generally failed to coalesce into a wider movement. Unlike the 1990s, there have been no treetop communities or tunnel occupations on the evening news. A new generation of green activists has grown up inspired by the anti-roads protestors, but they are more interested in a different sort of tarmac. When, in 2007, the Camp for Climate Action spent eight days next to Heathrow Airport campaigning against its proposed expansion, one of the organisers predicted that it would be ‘the mother of all battles … It will be the Newbury bypass of the skies.’[4]

Where are all the neo-Swampys, ready to dig tunnels and climb up trees to stop the road contractors? The problem is that in our newly outsourced public sphere, no one who wants to protest against a road can be sure who or what to protest against. There is nothing as concrete as Roads for Prosperity, which listed and costed all road schemes under a single budget. Instead, the roadbuilding programme has fragmented into tiny pieces. While the government is still responsible for trunk roads and motorways, many other road schemes have been contracted out to local authorities. And in order to feed the post-Thatcherite shibboleth that private companies are beacons of competence and efficiency, many of these roads are built and paid for by private finance in design-and-build ‘procurement solutions’, a complicated version of hire purchase. A concession company finances the road and operates it for, say, 40 years, with the government repaying this company over time through shadow tolls, based on the number of vehicles using the road – so more traffic means more profits. Paying for roads on the never-never like this is far more expensive in the long run than paying for them the way we used to do, through public borrowing, but it conveniently erases the investment from the Treasury’s books and means that the cost of the road, both financial and environmental, can be met by some future government.

The other significant change in road politics since the 1990s has been a linguistic one. ‘Roadbuilding’ has become a dirty word; the government generally prefers to talk about ‘widenings’, ‘improvements’ and ‘extensions’. A new rhetoric of rationing and austerity now suggests that traffic problems can be solved by ‘tweaking’ the road system, focusing on ‘choke points’ and ‘better use’ options. Rather than make the case for new roads, politicians suggest that all that we need is a little more tinkering with the system – although, added all together, these various road ‘improvements’ represent far more than just tinkering.

Learning from the road protests

Since the anti-roads campaigns are beginning to seem like a distinct moment in British cultural and political history, it is worth considering what we can learn from them. They are sometimes characterised as part of the rise of ‘single-issue politics’, the fragmentation of political campaigning into a series of unrelated issues. But this description could not be more misleading when applied to the 1990s road protestors. There was nothing singular about their war against roads. Many protestors developed an entire belief system, a sort of eco-paganism that combined ideas from Wicca, Druidry, Buddhism and anarchism, and portrayed the road campaigns as a fairy-tale like struggle between untainted nature and tyrannical humanity. They also drew on a rich tradition of ideas about land ownership, democracy and the environment that reached back to the 1960s counterculture and even the English civil war.

These road protestors turn out to have been farsighted in their critique of the pursuit of infinite growth in a world of finite resources. Their struggle was motivated by a now widely-felt sense that the things that give our life purpose and meaning are the concrete particulars, the texture and detail of individual lives knotted together in unique places. Theirs was a fight for the parochial and the particular, a defiant assertion that the rise of a global monoculture was not simply inexorable. And the ‘road’, far from being a single issue, was both part of and symbolic of this wider struggle, just as today’s campaigns against supermarkets, airport expansions and distribution sheds are also about much else besides.

These protestors were right about many things. Roads do add to the growing touchlessness of the world, the loss of the real in the restless act of moving. And the environmental case against roads is now unanswerable – unless, of course, you are a presenter of the entertaining but highly politicised BBC motoring programme, Top Gear, which continues the strain of personal libertarianism and Tory anarchism that has run through the class-inflected history of British motoring. Oddly, although global warming was known about in the 1990s, it was not a major theme of the protests. But the clearest case against roadbuilding today is that it kills the earth twice – eating up vast amounts of energy to produce and lay the asphalt, and then choking the atmosphere with the carbon from car exhausts. Moreover, the evidence for the phenomenon of ‘induced traffic’ – new roads encouraging more car journeys, thus exacerbating rather than solving the problem – is more compelling than ever.

But in castigating roads as the universal enemy, the anti-roads movement also drowned out some important historical nuances. The road protestors tended to see the world in Manichean terms. Their self-image was of the English natives against the invading army of roadbuilders, the guardians of nature against a brutalising technocracy. But while a road can mutilate a landscape, it is not the worst thing that can happen to it. The 1990s anti-roads campaigns often railed against the destruction of irreplaceable landscapes, like water meadows and downland. But the slow loss of the commonplace can be as catastrophic as the dramatic loss of the conspicuously beautiful, and the chemical monocultures created by more than sixty years of intensive farming have done more harm to biodiversity than motorways. The reason that agribusiness has not inspired protests on the scale of the anti-roads movement is partly cosmetic: the featureless boredom of prairie-style farming is not as obvious or ugly an alteration of the landscape as a line of grey tarmac, and not so easy to raise an army against.

A genre of nature writing has emerged recently which adds a little more ambivalence and complexity to the protestors’ cries about roadbuilders ‘killing the earth’. Writers like Robert Macfarlane, Mark Cocker and Kathleen Jamie deal with the more parochial, mundane aspects of the natural world and our human interactions with it, and consequently they tend to be wary of ecological rhetoric that is too stark or strident. Macfarlane begins his recent book, The Wild Places, by voicing his anxiety that ‘only a small and diminishing proportion of terrain is now more than five miles from a motorable surface’ and that ‘the landscape has become so thickly webbed by roads that asphalt and petrol are its new primary elements’. By the end, though, he is arguing that ‘the contemporary threats to the wild [a]re multiple, and severe. But they [a]re also temporary. The wild prefaced us, and it will outlive us. Human culture will pass, given time … Our roads will lapse into the land.’[5]

Richard Mabey, the doyen of this school of nature writing, began his career examining what he called the ‘unofficial countryside’ – the bits of unlovely nature that existed alongside human development and were ecologically valuable precisely because they were so unloved and untouched – and was the first to suggest that the roadside verge served as a kind of impromptu nature reserve, far more ecologically diverse than the intensively farmed land it cut through. More recently he has argued that there is something anthropomorphic about the way in which we cast ourselves as the enemies or saviours of the earth, pushing it to the centre of our own narratives and ignoring its tenacious otherness. ‘Care for the natural world … is a treacherous emotion,’ he writes, ‘apt to slip into a sense of custodianship, and then of possessiveness, into a habit of seeing the natural world as not just in need of protection, but unable to thrive without our help.’[6] The earth is stronger than us, Mabey suggests, and it can survive a shock even as devastating as a road.

These writers suggest that the human relationship with the natural world should be one of patient and careful negotiation, and any such negotiation is inherently political. In his classic book A Defence of Politics, Bernard Crick argues that politics can be a weapon against the tyranny of the abstract noun, a way to marshal ‘that most unpopular of defences: historical analysis applied against the vagueness of popular rhetoric’. ‘Politics needs to be defended even against democracy,’ he writes, ‘certainly in the sense any clear and practical idea needs defending against something vague and imprecise.’[7] A lot of the current discussion about roads seems to me to be similarly vague and imprecise. On the one hand the government is attempting, in a classic New Labourite rhetorical move, to erase all the messy politics out of roadbuilding, to pretend that it is part of some bland ‘route management strategy’. On the other hand the anti-roads movement has tended to overstress the alienating nature of roads and idealise older types of transport, from walking to railways. Indeed, the public image of roads more generally is so poor that you wonder why anyone would want to enter this hellish land of jams, pile-ups, shed loads and road rage. But seeing roads as evidence of collective human madness is not necessarily a helpful way of separating drivers from their cars. Roads are not simply dull, soulless, polluting places, and the people who use them cannot just be shaken out of their false consciousness and made aware of the error of the ways. We need to understand the attractions of driving on roads, of what Andrew O’Hagan calls ‘the rhythmic, sedative pull of the motorways as the road performs its magic, pulling you back by degrees to some forgotten individualism that the joys and vexations of community always threatened to turn into an upholstered void’.[8] If we acknowledged the aesthetic and emotional appeal of roads for motorists, it might be easier to address how to persuade them to use more sustainable forms of transport at least some of the time.

If roads were discussed properly against their alternatives, too, we might come up with some surprisingly diverse solutions. The environmentalist George Monbiot, for example, has pointed out that, for all the image of eco-friendliness that the railways now have, carbon emissions per train passenger are actually greater than for coach travellers. He argues that the best use of the motorways would be to hand them over to coaches, with dedicated bus lanes and coach stations at motorway junctions. With cars travelling at 60 miles an hour, the M25 can only accommodate 19,000 people; with everyone in coaches it could squeeze in 260,000 people, who would also have also time to work, read, listen to music or sleep instead of driving.[9] There are other possibilities that might rescue the roads and ensure that the human race will still be around to enjoy or endure them: fuel-cell, electric and solar-powered cars, or a stringent system of road pricing that actively encouraged people to use their cars less rather than simply displacing road tax and the existing costs of driving. The allure of roads and cars is considerable, and I do not think there are many motorists who want to stop using their cars completely – but if we begin by acknowledging this allure we might find ways of weaning ourselves off our addiction to asphalt.


[1] ‘Manchester’s Plan is “An Example to England”’, The Guardian, 21.7.45.

[2] Roland Nicholas, City of Manchester Plan: Prepared for the City Council, Jarrold and Sons 1945, pp7, 205, 43.

[3] George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, Penguin 2007, p145.

[4] Ben Webster, ‘Go-ahead for Heathrow Expansion’, The Times, 8.12.06.

[5] Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places, Granta 2007, pp9-10, 316-7.

[6] Richard Mabey, Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees, Chatto and Windus 2007, p. 127.

[7] Bernard Crick, In Defence of Politics, 5th ed., Continuum 2000, pp73, 56.

[8] Andrew O’Hagan, ‘A Car of One’s Own’, London Review of Books, 11 June 2009.

[9] George Monbiot, Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, Penguin 2007, pp 147, 149-51.

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