The Secret History of the Motorway

Plans, Big Plans: 1969 - 1978

In 1969, things were going rather swimmingly for the motorway construction industry. The 1,000 mile target was going to be achieved on time, and so thoughts turned to the next stage of the grand masterplan.

"Roads for the Future: A New Inter-Urban Plan" was published as a Green Paper (though only the cover was green, the printed paper was quite a disappointing white) in that year. It concerned itself with adding to the English motorway network, and would concentrate upon the access to and between the main core routes already constructed, and

...would provide the country with a main system of high class roads to which all important centres of population - existing and projected - would, or could easily, be connected.

This translated to every city with a population of over 250,000 (of which there are only about 15 in England), would be connected directly to the strategic network, whilst any town with a population of over 80,000 (which is lots more!) would be within 10 miles of that network. The network would also be designed to serve every major airport and seaport.

Whilst not all of the improvements in the Paper would be motorways, they would all be at least dual-carriageway all purpose roads.

Not surprisingly in this motorway-tastic time, the Green Paper turned into a White Paper (still on white paper - though wouldn't it be fun if White Papers were printed on green paper, just to confuse everyone?) and moved into Government policy with the following rather wonderful claim:

...real congestion on the inter-urban trunk road system would be virtually eliminated.

Yeah, right.


In 1970, there was a new Government - and this one was just as committed to motorway construction as the last. In fact, they saw the 1,000 mile target, and raised it by another 1,000 miles. This second thousand mile target would be achieved by the early 1980s, apparently. We'll return to this later...

Suddenly there were plans springing up all over the place - plans such as M64 Stoke - Derby Motorway, M67 Manchester - Sheffield Motorway, and the Strensham - Solihull Motorway

This couldn't last, surely?

Well, no. The first casualties of a changing public mood were the urban motorways. Perhaps the final straw in London was the opening of the A40(M) Westway in 1970 - suddenly there was this motorway running at rooftop height. It frightened the life out of the local residents, and before long the whole of London seemed to be against the Ringways, and they were finally killed off in 1973.

Outside London, all enthusiasm for urban motorway building was killed off in 1974, when the reorganisation of local government brought about the Metropolitan County Councils. Generally these bodies were much more anti-road than the previous County Borough Councils, and so things were quietly put down out there.

Still, that left the rural motorways, didn't it?

Well, no. The first thousand-mile target was achieved in 1972, but there were storm clouds on the horizon.

The oil crisis of the mid-1970s caused real economic problems for Britain as a whole, with public spending cuts regularly occurring. Uniquely, road expenditure was featured in every single spending cut, with some being of the order of £500 million - which is a fair number of Smarties!

Schemes were cancelled left, right and centre, and the second thousand-mile plan was in tatters. Not everything stopped, however, and the actual length of motorway opened in the late 1970s wasn't all that different from that in the late 1960s - it was the longer term projects that suffered.

By the end of 1978, the motorway network as we know it today had taken shape. The M1 went all the way from London to Leeds, the M4 reached well into Glamorgan from London, the M5, M6 (except for the small 2008 section!) and M62 were complete, whilst many of the shorter linking motorways were also open to the lengths of 2008.

Low Priority >>

The Secret History of the Motorway



Early Struggles

Indifference to Acceptance

The Tide Turns

The Special Roads Act

The Preston Bypass

The M1, M10 and M45

The Motorway Age

Plans, Big Plans

Low Priority

Last Hurrah

Much Ado About Nothing Much

What of the Future?




Maps and Plans


Further Reading


See Also:

50 years of Motorways