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England – South Western

Regional Co-ordinator: The late Fred Johnson

England - South Western

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History of the Motorways in the South West Region

The concentrations of population in the Southwest have arisen for many and varied reasons but their location has led to the need to develop communications. The Roman occupation of Britain led to the construction of a network of military roads serving the garrison towns such as Exeter, Gloucester, Worcester and Ilchester and connections to ports at the coasts or on many tidal rivers. After the collapse of the Roman influence roads ceased to be maintained and transport reverted to riders and packhorses using trackways. It was not until about the turn of the seventeenth century that turnpikes started to emerge in the region. Meanwhile the canalization of rivers and the development of a network of canals led to improved transport by barges in specific parts of the Southwest. With the invention of the railway locomotive canals were quickly followed by railways. The expansion of the British Empire and wider communications in the World encouraged the development of ports around the British coasts and this encouraged the expansion of the railways. In the southwest notable examples of railway development include the Great Western between London - Bath - Bristol and South Wales and the Bristol - Exeter Railway; these major routes gave rise to an increased subsidiary network of branch lines. Towns along the main canal and subsequently railway arteries expanded and significant corridors of population emerged. For example Gloucester, Bristol, Taunton, Exeter and Plymouth with a number of smaller communities in-between. Similarly towns developed along the corridor from London to Bristol.

At the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth century the emergence of the motor car gave impetus to the development of paved highways and improvements in design and alignment. Post 1914 -18 war unemployment relief works accelerated road improvements and the growing numbers of all classes of vehicles in the 1930’s gave rise to proposals for bypass design and construction for new main arterial routes. Under the Local Government Act 1929 County Councils became responsible for County Highways in their areas and a movement emerged for the development of a new road network which served communities but avoided towns. These proposals were not unique to Britain; Italy commenced construction of the Autostrada in the 1920’s and similar moves were taking place in USA and in Europe. However a Royal Commission found against the ideas in 1931. This was formidable opposition and it was echoed by the Minister of Transport, the Rt Hon. Leslie Hore-Belisha, who, in1936 in response to a question about Motorways, said "I have often given consideration to this matter but in a thickly populated and thickly roaded country such as ours, I am not prepared to recommend embarking on the construction of an entirely new road system".

Notwithstanding this opposition the then recently formed Institution of Highway Engineers proposed a system of Motorways in a plan drawn up in 1936. In the Southwest this showed a route from Plymouth via Exeter and east of Bristol to the Midlands and another route from London north of Bristol to SouthWales which crossed the Severn Estuary. In 1938, after a visit in 1937 to view the German Autobahnen Programme, the County Surveyors Society submitted a plan for 1000 miles of Motorway which was less ambitious than that proposed by the Institution of Highway Engineers. This plan was also not well received by the Ministry who were investigating how the existing Trunk Road network could be widened and, where necessary, diversions introduced. The outbreak of War in 1939 curtailed the demands for new Motorways but towards the end of hostilities the views of the Ministry were veering in favour of the provision of a network of high standard routes and consideration was given to the principles of the design standards. Post War saw the enactment of the 1946 Trunk Roads Act and later The Special Roads Act 1949: this latter Act was a milestone as it provided legislation enabling the construction of Motorways and accompanying Schedules of the act included reference to the approaches to the proposed Severn Crossing effectively designating them as some of the first sections of British Motorway.

Historically a transport link from London to Bristol and thence across the Atlantic had featured in past road and railway provision. The construction of a bridge over the Severn Estuary was first proposed in 1845 with spasmodic argument for its provision thereafter. With the added impetus of the need to improve communications to South Wales the Bridge over the Severn was planned in 1936 when Consulting Engineers Mott, Hay & Anderson were first appointed but rearmament and hostilities curtailed activity until post war when the design was recommenced only to be delayed again by national financial squeezes. In 1945 Freeman Fox & Partners were engaged to work jointly on the Project.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 required County Councils to produce County Development Plans for their Areas. Included in these plans were future proposals for trunk roads which included the approach roads to the Severn Bridge which had been prepared for the Ministry of Transport by Gloucestershire County Surveyor and which were accepted by the Local Authorities in the Area in1951.

In 1956 Harold Watkinson (Minister of Transport) had indicated, in a written Parliamentary answer, that five projects nationally were of overriding priority one of which was " a road from London westwards to London Airport, the West of England and South Wales". Construction of the first Severn Bridge commenced in the early 1960’s. when successive sections of work were put out to contract and the accompanying links to the road network were also started.

In order to develop the full benefit of the Severn Crossing the provision of new north-south connections were required in addition to the London - South Wales axis. Orders for a new Special Road from North of Twyning in Gloucestershire to Lydiate Ash in Worcestershire had already been published shortly after the enactment of the Special Roads Act 1949. This was the commencement of the M5 Bristol - Birmingham Motorway which also linked to the Ross Spur M50. in Worcestershire.

Towards the end of the 1950’s and the early 1960’s the growth of holiday traffic in the South West caused chaos. At the peak holiday seasons (Easter and Summer) long queues built up at the approaches to every village and town along the A38 and to a lesser extent on the A303/A30. The journey from Exeter to Bristol could take up to five hours. The life of the communities such as Cullompton, Wellington, Taunton, Bridgwater and Highbridge was intolerable at these times and queues on the Exeter Bypass were a legend throughout the Country. As the years passed motorists, in an endeavor to beat the jams, travelled through the night; which in turn extended the hours of traffic movement in places which in the past were quiet communities. To alleviate the problems to some extent a system of "HR or Holiday Routes" were introduced along somewhat parallel more minor roads for light traffic. This system helped solve congestion in part but also spread the chaos to other more rural place. This situation continued until the M5 and other major route improvements were completed.

In 1959 Freeman Fox & Partners were appointed to report on the location of the M5 from the Ross Spur at Strensham to Edithmead in Somerset a distance of some 71 miles: in 1964 they were appointed to design and supervise its construction.

Filton Bypass, south of the Almondsbury Interchange, was constructed by Gloucestershire County Council between 1959 and 1962. and subsequently incorporated into the Motorway route

Somerset County Council had produced proposals for a series of bypasses to the towns on the A38 before and after the 1939-45 War and these were developed into proposals for the M5 between Edithmead and Collumpton Bypass in the 1960’s. Cullompton Bypass, opened in 1968, was designed and the construction supervised by Devon County Council as Trunk Road agents of the Ministry of Transport.

In 1961 draft orders were published for the Almondsbury Interchange, the route from Almondsbury southwards to Filton, and eastwards to Tormarton with a spur to Hambrook (later to become the M32 when it was extended into Bristol). In August 1961 Gloucestershire County Council were appointed Agent Authority in association with Harry Brompton & Partners, Consulting Engineers, to design and supervise the construction of the M4 between the Almonsbury Interchange and the A46 Trunk Road at Tormarton.

In 1961 the Maidenhead Bypass, designed and supervised by Berkshire County Council in association with Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners, Consulting Engineers, opened to traffic as a section of the M4 Motorway. In January 1961 Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners, Consulting Engineers, were appointed by the Ministry of Transport to report on possible routes for the M4 from Maidenhead to Tormarton. As mentioned previously the concept of a new route to South Wales was promoted actively in the 1930’s and at that time proposals were drawn up for a series of Bypasses for the towns along the A4 Trunk Road by the County Councils concerned.

In 1968 the Minister of Transport, Mrs. Barbara Castle set up the Road Construction Units (RCU) under the control of the Ministry to supervise the administration, design and construction of the Motorway and Trunk road Programme in England. These units were a partnership between local and central government and were staffed by civil servants and local authority staff on secondment. In the Southwest a headquarters unit was opened in Taunton where the Director was based with administrative staff and engineering specialists. There were two sub-units, in Taunton (Somerset) and in Exeter ( Devon). In Gloucester, as there was a declining trunk road work load, a special works unit was retained for a few years. The administration of the motorway programme in the Southwest was transferred to the Headquarters Unit from the Ministry in London and design work being undertaken by the County Surveyor’s departments was transferred to the sub-units. Likewise the Consulting Engineers who were preparing schemes or supervising construction came under the control of the RCU Director. A similar RCU was established in the South East and assumed responsibility for the Consulting Engineers dealing with the design and supervision of the M4. In the negotiations to establish the RCU’s, which took place between the County Council’s Association and the Ministry it was agreed that in the six Road Construction Units three Directors would be appointed from Local Government and three from the Civil Service Engineers. In those units with a Civil Service Director the Deputy Director was to be from Local Government and visa versa. The administrative load on the Area H.Q. in preparing statutory orders, public inquiries and processing land acquisition was considerable so there was a sizable personnel compliment (At peak in excess of 100) under a Controller of Administration. In addition there were some twenty or so professional Engineering and Quantity Surveying Staff including Superintending Engineers, Group Engineers and Section Engineers. Their tasks were to ensure appropriate standards were adopted, to undertake Public Inquiries, to coordinate the design and administration and ensure finance was available, and to advise on policy.

The detailed design work and contract supervision was undertaken by the County Sub-units under the management of the Chief Engineer who was the County Surveyor. In the Southwest the Somerset Sub-Unit dealt with that part of the M5 between Edithmead and Willand in Devon . The Sub-Unit, which was approximately one hundred strong, was managed by two Superintending Engineers. The supervision of all contractors, whether preparing or collecting design information or undertaking works was undertaken by the sub-unit. When the major contracts were underway over one hundred people were involved in site supervision.