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Northern Ireland

Regional Co-ordinator: Billy McCoubrey

Editor: Jackson McCormick

Northern Ireland

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Conceptions and early history of the motorways in Northern Ireland

Sydenham By-Pass

Sydenham By-PassR D (Dundas) Duncan, a Scottish consulting engineer, was engaged on the construction of Barnett's silo at Belfast Harbour when he was asked in June 1936 by the Ministry of Home Affairs to report - in a part-time capacity - on the feasibility of building a new road later to be known as the Sydenham By-Pass. The Minister responsible was Sir Dawson Bates Bt. who was in charge at Home Affairs from 1922 until 1943. Duncan submitted his report in December 1936, and was then employed in the Ministry of Home Affairs to design and build the road.

Work started on the Sydenham By-Pass in 1938 but was suspended on the outbreak of war in September 1939. Duncan's responsibilities were extended to include both water and roads in the Ministry of Home Affairs.

History of Motorways in Britain

In his book "A History of British Motorways" Dr George Charlesworth (ex Road Research Laboratory) referred to the early development of motorway type roads in other countries:Long Island (USA) 1914, near Berlin 1921, Italy 1924, and especially the German Autobahnen from 1933 onwards. In Britain the Institution of Highway Engineers in 1936 put forward proposals for a motorway system of about 2800 miles. In 1937 the German Government invited the AA and RAC to form a party to inspect the German motorways. A large party (224 delegates) including many County Surveyors, some MPs and representatives of professional bodies and of organisations representing road users, vehicle manufacturers, road transport and road construction went to Germany. Duncan was in the party. The delegation reached the conclusion that Britain was in urgent need of several special highways to be designed for exclusive use by motor vehicles and with the autobahn concept of controlled access and no at grade intersections. According to Chambers, Duncan was convinced that this was the way ahead for the main arterial routes in Northern Ireland and that the only real enthusiasts were James Drake and himself.

In October 1937 the County Surveyors' Society met to consider the report of the delegation and in May 1938 it put forward a proposal for a motorway system of about 1000 miles but it was not accepted by the then Minister of Transport, Leslie Burgin. There is no reference to Northern Ireland in Charlesworth's otherwise excellent book, nor is there any in the Institution of Civil Engineers' publication "20 years of British Motorways" (1980) or in "Motorways in Britain Today and Tomorrow" also published by the Institution of Civil Engineers (1971).

Post War Planning in Northern Ireland

During the latter part of World War II considerable thought was being given in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, to "post war planning". Duncan recruited several younger members of staff to work on post war planning and to help with the oversight of grant payments to local authorities for work on roads and water and sewerage. Much of the work done was to meet the needs of the armed services.

Duncan was aware of what was happening in the rest of the United Kingdom and in 1943 saw a copy of the internal 1942 Cook Report, which had been prepared for the Ministry of War Transport. It advocated the construction of a system of about 1000 miles of motorway in Britain and referred to earlier proposals by the County Surveyors' Society and the Institution of Civil Engineers.

In August 1942 the Minister of Home Affairs, Sir Dawson Bates, appointed a Commission "to prepare planning proposals for submission to the Ministry of Home Affairs and to make recommendations as to any legislative or administrative action necessary in connection therewith". The chairman was an eminent English planner - W R Davidge - and the other members - mainly engineers and architects - while appointed in their individual capacities - were drawn from the 2 County Borough Councils, the 6 County Councils, the Belfast Harbour Commissioners, the Belfast Water Commissioners and the various departments of the Northern Ireland Government.

The Commission produced an interim report "Planning Proposals for the Belfast Area" in September 1944 (published in 1945). In addition to proposals for ring roads and bridges across the Lagan it advocated the construction of 3 new radial routes with motorway characteristics to relieve the existing roads:- Antrim Road, Lisburn Road and BangorRoad.

Another interim report was produced in February 1946 - "Road Communications in Northern Ireland". It dealt comprehensively with the engineering and administrative aspects of the Northern Ireland road system. One of the recommendations was "the provision of a motorway between Belfast and Portadown to be undertaken at the earliest possible date". The Commission expressed its thanks to Duncan, R D Warren and Knipe "for the invaluable assistance they gave in the preparation of this report ....". Because of changes in the responsibilities in Government departments in 1945 the report was submitted to William Grant, the Minister of Health and Local Government. The Roads Branch had been transferred to the Ministry of Commerce. G W H (George) Allen had joined the staff there in the summer of 1945.

Work and Staff in the 1940s

In the immediate post war period funds for capital works were scarce, so little work was done on roads apart from maintenance. Towards the end of 1946 work was resumed on the Sydenham By-Pass on a small scale by direct labour. In November T J (Jackson) McCormick joined the staff there.

By offering high rates of grant the Government encouraged the Counties to carry out major improvement schemes on the "arterial" roads indicated in the 1946 report pending the enactment of legislation to establish a trunk road system.

Considerable work was done on survey and preliminary design of the proposed new roads. Several more engineers were recruited, including some who had been in the services during the war.

The administrative staff in the Roads Branch maintained contact with their opposite numbers in the Ministry of Transport in London and modelled their forthcoming legislation to a large extent on the Westminster legislation such as the Trunk Road Acts of 1936 and 1946.


On 13 November 1946 the Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Commerce, Major J R Perceval-Maxwell, announced, among other things that the Government had accepted the Planning Commission's recommendations that approach roads to Belfast should be constructed. The construction of the Sydenham By-Pass would be completed and 2 others would be undertaken. One from the South would by-pass Lisburn and the suburban area, which had grown up between Lisburn and Belfast. The other, from the North, would by-pass Glengormley and relieve the present Antrim Road within the city. The Government proposed to construct them at public expense. He added that legislation would be required.

There was considerable debate in the Northern Ireland Parliament about the proposed legislation. Some members disliked the idea of a government department taking over some of the responsibilities of the County Councils by creating a system of trunk roads to be financed by the government. The government had already taken powers to construct new roads in earlier legislation - The Roads Act (NI) 1937. They were first used for the Sydenham By-Pass.

The Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1948 was passed in December 1948 and most of its powers took effect from I April 1949. It established 2 new classes of roads - Trunk roads and Class III roads. The latter were mainly the more important unclassified roads. They became the responsibility of the County Councils. The 1948 Act also contained sufficient powers for the construction of what later became known as special roads ie motorways. More detailed powers for the construction and especially for the operation of motorways came later in the Special Roads Act (Northern Ireland) 1963, which was passed in March 1963. A Special Roads Act had been passed at Westminster in 1949.

During the course of the debate in parliament the Minister of Commerce, Sir Roland Nugent, said on 27 October 1948, that 3 arterial roads were contemplated - the Lisburn Road, the Antrim Road and the Sydenham By-Pass - but because of the then shortage of materials it would probably be some years before work could be started. None of the 3 roads would be more than 15 to 20 miles in length. The cost of these new roads, and the costs of improving and maintaining the 350 miles of roads which would become Trunk Roads would be borne out of moneys provided by Parliament instead of from the Road Fund which was devoted entirely to road and traffic functions until 1973. This would release funds, which would be available for grants from the Road Fund for work on first, second, third class and unclassified roads. The work on the trunk roads would be done by the County Councils acting as the Ministry's agents. Despite critical comments by many MPs, who were more concerned with the state of the minor roads and the powers of the County Councils, the final stages of the Bill were completed in December 1948.

Design and Construction

In the meantime some work was being done on the Sydenham By-Pass. The direct labour squad laid concrete slabs between March and May and between August and December in 1947 but in January 1948 the direct labour squad was paid off. Some minor work was done by contract. Survey and design work was being done on the South Approach Road and North Approach Roads by teams led by Sievewright and Bott -working under Chambers.

Because of the lack of resources - both financial and material - the morale of the engineering staff suffered considerably in 1948. By about the middle of the year several had gone to various parts of Southern Africa and others had applied for jobs with local authorities and consulting engineers.

In October 1950 the Roads Branch staff moved from their temporary premises in the grounds of the Deaf and Dumb Institute on the Lisburn Road to the new Ministry of Commerce offices in Chichester Street.

Towards the end of 1952 there were indications that fluids would soon become available, on a five year programme basis, for work on the Approach Roads. Government expenditure on the trunk system was growing. Over the next three years there were further changes departures and recruits - in the middle and junior grades of staff, both technical and administrative, in the Roads Branch of the Ministry of Commerce. Work continued on the design of the three "approach roads", the preparation of the necessary legal procedures such as Direction and Vesting Orders, discussions with landowners and agreement of accommodation works etc. Work was also being done on the selection of lines for possible extensions of the South Approach Road beyond Sprucefield and the North Approach Road beyond Corr's Corner.

Expansion of the System in the 1950s

On 8 June 1956, the Minister of Commerce, Lord Glentoran, announced a greatly enlarged programme of construction and reconstruction of roads in the province. He mentioned particularly

  1. the extension of the East Approach Road from Sydenham to Cultra and the construction of a dual carriageway from Ballyrobert to Bangor;
  2. the extension of the South Approach Road from Lisburn to Moira and then further dual carriageway towards Dungannon;
  3. the extension of the North Approach Road from Corr's Corner past Doagh and Ballyclare towards Ballymena and
  4. a provisional proposal for another Approach Road between Belfast and Carryduf.

He said that the Armagh and Tyrone County Councils would be involved in the work between Moira and Dungannon. Later in 1957 it was decided to employ consultants to prepare contract documents and supervise the work on some of these schemes which were on a very much bigger scale than any road works previously carried out in Northern Ireland. Later it was also decided to pass some of the work to the Works Division of the Ministry of Finance where the Chief Engineer was H McM (Harold) Taggart.