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Regional Co-ordinator: The late Owen Gibbs


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The history of motorway development in Wales

South Wales has undergone many changes since the pattern of its road network was established centuries ago and this foreword will examine these changes in order to set down the context in which the motorway was conceived and finally built.

The Romans established a route, Via Julia Maritima, across South Wales and this is followed very largely by the present A48. From then on, for many centuries, agriculture governed the needs for movement and, for the most part, roads were the responsibility of the parish. In the mid 18th century Turnpike Trusts were set up, to meet the gradually developing requirement for more distant travel. In South Wales their activities were so repressive and corrupt that rioting occurred and gates and tollhouses were destroyed. Government recognised, largely as a result of reports printed in The Times, that the grievances, if not the resulting actions, were justified, and in 1846 County Highway Boards were established in South Wales, to buy out the trusts and take over their functions.

David Williams, the historian, has written "It was a remarkable consequence of the Rebecca Riots that, for the next thirty years, South Wales enjoyed a better system of roads than any other part of the country".

Meanwhile, along the northern boundary of the area, substantial reserves of iron ore, timber, coal and other resources led to the establishment of a chain of ironworks. Their products were taken to the coast, initially by packhorse and later (circa 1780 on) by a group of several separate canals, each confined to the valley routes, served by a network of horse drawn tram roads.

It is interesting to reflect on the fact that the mileage of the four major canals was similar to that of the motorway in Wales and their building occupied far less time.

The Severn estuary had, of course, served for centuries as an effective alternative to land transport, many small harbours existed in river estuaries and from 1830 major dock systems were developed, served initially by canal and soon by a network of broad and narrow gauge railways which developed to become as extensive as any in the country except that in the London area.

It was the exploitation of coal measures rather than the manufacture of iron which led to the further development of ports and railways.

The establishment of County Councils in 1889 led to the disbanding of the County Highway Boards whose role was assumed by the new authorities. There were, however, a number of urban areas within the counties of Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, which retained the right to control their own highways, and the County Council never achieved the position in which it was wholly in control of the highway network. Only in its last few years, with the employment of planning powers with countywide coverage, did it become possible to begin to take an all-embracing look at the principal highway network.

This situation changed in 1974 with the establishment of smaller counties but with wider highway powers and the succeeding years, until the next reorganisation, saw the completion of several major schemes to improve access to the valleys as well as measures to enhance passenger use of the residual railway network.

Initially, once the decision to build the first Severn Bridge had been made, M4 in Wales was probably seen by central government as little more than an extension of the bridge. JFA Baker was Divisional Road Engineer in Wales in the early post war years and apparently recognised the developing areas of congestion at Newport and Port Talbot. Both were bypassed by routes, which were at or near the then current motorway standards, the former scheme being regarded at the time as the concluding section of the M4 and the latter as a part of A48. Swansea County Borough Council were invited to design Morriston Bypass, once more, initially, as a section of A48.

The establishment of the Welsh Office and the transfer of highway powers clearly led to a re-appraisal of policy and the decision was made to extend the motorway into Wales. Initially this was to take in the recently completed Cardiff Eastern Avenue. Port Talbot and Morriston Bypasses were to be incorporated. On the remaining sections property demolition and environmental damage was lessened by Glamorgan County Council's determination to restrict development adjacent to a draft line extending from north Cardiff to Bridgend (and possibly beyond) and for a southern bypass to Pyle, both lines being followed closely by the finished route.

The motorway wascompleted westward to Pont Abraham, and subsequent changes included those consequent upon the completion of the Second Severn Crossing.

Unusual too, in the context of the English RCUs, has been the arrangements made by the Welsh Office in commissioning design offices. The early sections in Wales were dealt with by Sir Owen Williams & Partners and the successor to this firm also designed the more recent major structural works at Newport and at the River Neath crossing. Reference has been made above to the invitation issued to Swansea County Borough and in later work invitations were placed with Howard Humphreys, who had done excellent work on the A449, with Glamorgan County Council (Denis Farrar and EW Jinks) and its successor bodies, South, West and Mid Glamorgan, with Freeman Fox & Partners and with WS Atkins, who had come to Wales to design the major post-war steel strip mill at Port Talbot.

In the mid 1990s a further reorganisation of local government led to the replacement of the five South Wales counties by double the number of all-purpose authorities. 1999 saw the setting up of the National Assembly, which title now embraces the civil servants as well as the elected members. Inevitably now, the Assembly is the only body capable of taking a strategic view of Wales' transportation needs.

At the last reorganisation the new all-purpose authorities were encouraged to set up joint teams for carrying out engineering works. Not all agreed with this arrangement but as a result of measures taken four organisations; Gwent & Glamorgan Consultancies, Cardiff County Council and Neath, Port Talbot Borough Council, now act as agents in the care and maintenance of the M4 in Wales.

The Second Severn Crossing is briefly described in the South West Region pages.