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England – Midlands

Regional Co-ordinator: John Carrington

England - Midlands

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Background to the development of the Motorway network in the Midlands

The English Midlands covers the government's administrative areas of West Midlands and East Midlands and is the are which was covered by the Department of Transport's Midland Road Construction Unit (MRCU). MRCU were responsible for the capital works programme for motorway construction between 1967 and 1988. The area covered the eight counties of Derbyshire, Herefordshire, Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire. The area also includes the Birmingham Conurbation which has a population of some three million people and is the second largest urban conurbation in Britain.

It has often been written that the Midlands is at the 'hub' of the motorway network. This is, of course, a truism as the Midlands and particularly Birmingham, sits exactly halfway between London and the Manchester Conurbation. It is also similarly situated between Bristol in the southwest and the rest of the country. Its importance in the nations transport infrastructure cannot therefore be over stressed.

The first piece of the motorway network to enter the Midland area was the M1 with its associated spur M45 which was opened to traffic in 1959. It took a further 16 years before London and Birmingham were directly linked with the building of the M6 Midland Links motorways. For many years the 'hub' consisted only of three 'spokes', that is M1/M6 and M5. Although the basic motorway network was laid down in the late 50's and early 60's and added to in the early 70's, the network remains incomplete today.

The Automobile Association, in their publication, 'The Great British Motorist 2000' stated that in comparison with our European neighbours, Britain has a sparse motorway network. This can readily be seen in the Midlands where the existing network is the most congested in Europe. The M5, M6 and M42 are all carrying traffic in excess of 150,000 vehicles per day which is double their original design capacity. The section of the Midlands Links through Birmingham has recorded flows of over 160,000 vehicles per day with an HGV content of 30%. The Birmingham Conurbation is one of the most densely populated urban areas in Europe yet is poorly served by motorways. The sheer volume of traffic causes static conditions every weekday with consequent huge delay costs.

It was recognised some 25 years ago that a relief network, to take through traffic away from the urban areas, was essential, but despite half-hearted attempts by successive governments neither the Northern Relief Road [BNRR] nor the Western Orbital Route [BWOR] are built and at the time of writing there is doubt if they ever will be. Many Transport Ministers, and there were nine during the Conservative administration of the 80's and 90's, repeatedly stated that there was an urgent need for these motorways for the economic well-being of the country. The political will however was never sufficiently strong to see the projects through. The environmental lobby which, has increased in its effectiveness over the years has given successive governments the excuse to prevaricate on the issue. But at what cost to industry and the urban environment?

It is worth recording here that one of the main reasons why motorways either do not get built or are subject to years of delay is the complicated system of statutory procedures which have to be negotiated even before the construction phase can start. The first section of M1 opened in 1959 did not require a single public inquiry or hearing into all the published draft schemes and orders thus the planning period lasted barely two years. Contrast this with the final section of M40 in the Midlands where the 'planning period' took 20 years to complete.

In researching the history of the various sections of motorway in the Midlands it is a wonder that any were built at all. The M5/M6 through the centre of the Birmingham Conurbation was not built on its original route due to local political lobbying who wanted the motorway as close to the city centre as possible. The original design for dual 4-lane standard was down-graded on the instructions of the then Transport Minister. The Midlands links (M5/M6) motorways with its 9km of elevated road and including the infamous Gravelley Hill (Spaghetti Junction) remains however one of the greatest achievements in design and construction in the entire motorway network.

The M69 between Coventry and Leicester was planned as a major south-west to north-east link between industrial centres and to relieve various towns and villages of through traffic. Yet shortly before contracts were due to be invited the then government shelved the project. The public outcry at this decision was such that the government had to rapidly back-track and the road was built.

The M54, connecting Telford New Town to M6 had to endure four public inquiries over a period of nearly 14 years largely due to changes in government policy and the unavoidable complexity of the statutory processes. At the eleventh hour, the Secretary of State for the Environment unaccountably wanted the project scrapped. The project had then to be referred to a Cabinet committee who ruled that it should go ahead. Telford was the second largest New Town in the country with a target population of 225,000. The Development Corporation had been promised the motorway to stimulate industrial development and attract much-needed jobs. Had the M54 been scrapped many tens of millions of pounds of public investment would have been put in jeopardy. The building of M54 attracted huge inward investment from many multi-national companies and Telford has become a successful and model New Town. Given these facts is is difficult to understand the logic behind some political reasoning.

An example of penny-pinching short-termism, was the decision to build the M5 in Worcestershire as a 4-lane motorway against all professional advice. The sections both the north and south were to be 6-lane standard. The motorway soon became dangerously over-loaded and had to be widened at a cost over ten times that of the original motorway.

The M42 was planned to connect M5 South of Birmingham to M1 at Nottingham to provide a major national cross-country route linking urban areas. The first section to be built was the Solihull section. It started and finished in a field. For many years the length north of M6 was used as an overspill car park for the National Exhibition Centre! It was decreed that the sections of M42 on either side of the Solihull section had to justify themselves as pieces of free-standing motorway. As small parts of an overall strategic route this was not possible. Hence after several difficult public inquiries it was not until 1989 that M42 began to operate as it had been originally planned - ten years after the first section had been completed. Even the final length between Ashby and M1 was unaccountably down-graded to an all-purpose road giving a congested and less safe road.

The M40 was planned to provide a second link between London and Birmingham. Although the first section between London and Oxford was opened in 1978 it took a further 13 years before the M40 was finally complete. Changes in governments, changes in policy, moratoriums, and the rise in strength of environmental objection all contributed to this long delay. Even the preferred route was altered at the last minute to satisfy powerful minority interests. M40 did however provide a for the 'spoke' to the Midlands 'hub' - thirty two years after the first and gave major relief to M1/M6.

In latter years, governments have tendered to favour investment in the rail network at the expense of roads even though the strategic road network was incomplete. This has largely been brought about by the gathering strength of the environmental lobby who argue that an improved rail network will relieve congestion in the roads. This does howeve ignore the fact that 90% of goods and passengers will continue to travel by road because roads provided the most flexible and convenient mode of transport. Road traffic continues to increase with consequent increases to industry and commerce.

As mentioned above, the orbital system planned to be built around the west Midlands Conurbation is till not built. The BNRR commenced its planning period in the late 1970's. It was considered by government to be 'vital' and 'urgently needed'. Having completed the major part of its statutory process by 1989 it was programmed to be opened to traffic by early 1994. History will show that the policy to transfer the road from the public sector to the private sector 'to speed up its completion' was disastrous. This 'speeding up' has had the reverse affect and even if the road is built it will still be at least ten years late.

The BWOR was 'of the highest priority' and the preparation and design was fast-tracked to enable it to be opened also by 1994. Due largely to environmental pressure and changes in government policy, the BWOR was removed from the road programmed in 1995. It is estimated that over £50 million of tax-payers money was written off following this decision.

This introduction to the development of motorways in the Midlands does not make inspiring reading and only underlines the fact that major roads are political footballs and could be subject to all manner of delay and prevarication. The Midlands has probably suffered more from this problem than any other region.