To celebrate the 100th edition of our Construction Buzz Newsletter, we’ve delved into the archives to bring you some of the most influential construction projects from the last 100 years, exactly as they were reported at the time.
There had been plans since before the Second World War for a motorway network in the UK. Politician and promoter of motoring, Lord Montagu, formed a company to build a 'motorway like road' from London to Birmingham in 1923, however it was a further 26 years before the Special Roads Act 1949 was passed which allowed for the construction of roads limited to specific vehicle classifications, and the 1950s when the country's first motorways were given the government go-ahead.
Guardian, 2 November 1959
When Mr. Marples opens to-day the first stretch of M1, the London-Birmingham section of the London-Yorkshire motorway, Britain will have eighty miles of road built for fast motor traffic - eight miles of the Preston by-pass and seventy-two miles of M1 and its attendant feeders. A hundred years ago our Victorian ancestors could build 400 miles of railway in a year: in twelve years since the post-war plan for motorways was announced in 1947 we have contrived to build eighty miles of new motor road. Legal difficulties in the way of obtaining land, which are often given as an excuse for slow progress, are not a convincing explanation. Victorian railway promoters had more formidable difficulties to contend with. They had to get acts of Parliament to authorise their routes, and they had to negotiate with landowners in days when the rights of private property were more jealously guarded than they are now. When they had got their land, they had to depend on men with picks and shovels to lay out the track. Perhaps the enterprise of railway companies was spurred by the hope of making money, an incentive that does not animate the public authorities which are responsible for building roads. If this difference between public and private enterprise has any bearing on the snail's pace of modern British road-building it is an unhappy reflection on our society. It would also be an absurd miscalculation, for roads are among the most profitable of investments that a community can make. In a study by the Road Research Laboratory and the University of Birmingham it has been estimated that the economic benefits deriving from the stretch of M1 opened to-day will repay its capital cost, together with accumulated interest, in between six and eight years - few major schemes of capital investment can do better than that.
Once a start is made, British civil engineers can get on with the job of roadbuilding as well as most: the London-Birmingham stretch of M1 has been built at the rate of about a mile in eight days, with a bridge every three days. No one can grumble at that (as long as the sad experience of the Preston by-pass is not repeated). The delay is in making a start. The Ministry of Transport has already found numbers for great motor routes from M1 to M6, with an ingenious system of double-figured numerology for the link roads connecting them. Only the roads are missing. No one can say when M1 will be finished. M2 is still described officially as "a possible Channel Ports motorway." M3 and M4 are to serve Exeter and South Wales - but when? M5 has been "reserved" for a Bristol-Birmingham motorway. M6 (Birmingham-Penrith) has eight miles in use (the Preston by-pass) and a Lancaster by-pass which is due to be opened next year. Most of the proposed great roads are still only lines on a map. There is useful work in progress on spurs and by-passes at Ross-on-Wye, Maidstone, Maidenhead, Doncaster, Stretford, and a few other places. But at the present rate of roadbuilding it will be another generation before these spurs and by-passes lead to a coherent road system. And given motorways, what is to be done with the traffic in the towns to which they lead? Here there are not even many plans. In an age of serious contemplation of travel to the moon it seems senseless that no British Government has yet devised means of enabling traffic to move more freely on the ground at home.