Despite all the detailed planning and consultation, all the politics and costly inquiries, and considering an awful lot of bad press, it seems quite incredible that the GLC might have ever thought the Ringway scheme stood a chance. In actual fact, its fate seems to have been sealed long before it was properly cancelled.
In 1969, the Greater London Council was still busily planning its road network. Ringway 1 had been planned and published in 1966, and Ringway 2 was published in July that year. The Ministry of Transport had consultants working steadily on Ringways 3 and 4 and a number of radial routes. The Greater London Development Plan was handed over to public inquiry. By rights, the fate of the GLC's road plan should have been wide open - but already it was unlikely to happen.
Standing in the way of the GLC was central Government. On 20 January 1969, when only Ringway 1 had yet been made public, a civil servant at the Treasury wrote to Mr Downey at the GLC on behalf of the Chancellor of the Exchequer:
"The Chancellor would be grateful for a very early note about the plans for a London Motorway Box. In particular he would like to know the route proposed; the cost; the date of construction of the various stages; and what scope there is at this stage for killing the whole project."
If it caused a panic at the GLC's highway planning office, Mr Downey's reply didn't show it. His response gave written outlines of the routes, costs and construction dates. It then admitted that, as the GLC would be forced to request a 75% grant for construction costs, the Treasury had a very effective veto on the entire scheme. But, ever the optimists, he reminded the Chancellor that the Council was "committed" to the scheme. The Chancellor was not fooled. The reply from the Treasury said:
"The Chancellor spoke to the Minister of Transport this afternoon about the London Motorway Box, and was glad to find that the Minister shares his own disapproval of the scheme. The Minister will now consider what action should be taken by the Government, and will in due course put a memorandum to Cabinet or a Parliamentary Committee."
The GLC had yet to publish most of its road plans, and already the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Transport were set against the scheme. Mostly, it was an issue of cost: by the summer of 1970 the price tag for Ringway 1 alone was estimated at £1.7bn (almost £19bn at today's prices, not including property price increases). That figure was almost double the GLC's estimate from the year before. And yet, somehow, the plan remained in the GLC's proposals, and most significantly, remained in the Greater London Development Plan.
The Greater London Development Plan
The GLDP set out proposals for all aspects of London's future, from social housing to parkland, from high-rise development policy to rail freight. Buried in its thousands of pages of reports, diagrams, appendices and charts were proposals for a network of motorways. Despite the vast remit of the Plan, when it went to public inquiry in 1969, the destructive road plans were the single most contested issue. There were so many objections, and so many objectors to make them, that it turned out to be the biggest public inquiry in British history, dragging on for several years.
The longer it dragged on, the more detail the GLC was required to present to the inquiry inspectors. Each new scrap of evidence was seized by the media, fuelling public disapproval. The tide turned very quickly. Late 1970 in one small area of south-west London saw the formation of the Putney Motorway Action Group, who cheered on Wandsworth Borough Council's "Save Battersea" campaign. Nearby were to be found the Strand-on-the-Green Association, Chelsea Society, Battersea Society, Kensington & Chelsea Residents Association and others - some dedicated groups, others more general associations, but all making an active stand against the proposals. Incensed residents, like those of the Grove Park Group, became self-taught experts in the science of urban highway design, discussing emerging sciences like noise contours and visual intrusion studies with confidence.
An objection to Ringway 2 in Hounslow - eloquently and professionally put.
Not only was the public rising against the plans - so was local government. While the GLC had responsibility across the whole of London, much of the day-to-day operation of the city fell to its many Borough Councils. Just four years earlier most of them had been all in favour, but now they were "uniting" against the Ringway threat. Under the headline "Councils combine to fight M-way 'madness'", the Clapham Observer reported:
"Five South London Councils - Lambeth, Lewisham, Merton, Southwark and Wandsworth - have agreed to combine to fight proposals to drive motorways through their boroughs...
"Coun Geoffrey Manning (Lambeth) who presided at the meeting, said: 'We agreed to examine all legal means of whipping up public support against this intolerable imposition on the urban environment... We are now getting down to planning a co-ordinated fight against this monstrous motorway madness on a regional basis. Stand by for fireworks.'"
Clapham Observer, 11 February 1972
Councils combine to fight M-way 'madness'
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Many of the action groups were represented in the GLDP public inquiry and also in the press. Some, like Stop the Box and the Grove Park Group became household names. The situation progressed further in 1971 when many smaller groups formed a coalition called the London Motorway Action Group.
Local newspapers were supportive in unprecedented ways: The Putney and Roehampton Herald, for example, happily gave a two-page spread for the Barnes Motorway Action Group to make its case, free of charge (extracts are shown left; click to enlarge).
The GLDP inquiry rumbled on for four years. It fell to Sir Justice Layfield, a High Court judge, to prepare the report of the inquiry's findings, and the much-anticipated Layfield Report was published in January 1973. Unsurprisingly, its most controversial decision was in transport. Layfield proposed that Ringway 1 should be built, bringing the radial motorways further into the city to meet it.
There was a storm in the press, especially when the Environment Minister, Geoffrey Rippon, seemed to have signalled his approval of the report. Swift Ministerial back-pedalling was necessary to make clear that he had not commented either way. The Sunday Times ran a two-page spread on 11 February 1973, despairing under the headline "The Motor Car Wins its Biggest Victory". It revealed that the cost of the scheme had skyrocketed, Ringway 1 now valued at £2bn (£17.5bn today, excluding property price increases). Typically, this wasn't telling the whole story.
Despite all the fuss, Layfield's report was much more focussed on public transport, proposing many rail and underground improvements and restrictions on road transport, and scrapping about a third of the total mileage of the Ringway plan. Nonetheless, Ringway 1 had cleared all the hurdles and made it to the Cabinet.
Following the Layfield report, the Department of the Environment sent a memo to the Treasury recommending that Ringway 1 be retained and other roads deleted as the report suggested. Over the following days the nervous Government's policy became clear in a number of messages and memos, stressing that "an endorsement of the need for an inner Ringway, without committal to the line, is as far as the Government should go."
Until this point, the GLC had been the target of the campaigners' anger, but with the decision now passing to Cabinet, the Government was afraid it would inherit the protests along with the road plans. For a short time, it looked like the bulldozers were about to move in. On 18 February 1973, the Sunday Times reported "Full Cabinet approves London's Motorway Box". Private Eye was hot on the trail and on 23 February printed a short article of leaked information about the Cabinet meeting. There was a panic within the Treasury, and an internal investigation was launched to trace the source of the leak. In actual fact, it hardly mattered.
By the time Private Eye had its exclusive, the Ringway plan was dead. Writing from the Treasury on 20 February 1973, a letter to Mr Howard simply ran:
"The Minister of State has been following these papers and has commented: 'The Inner Motorway Box will never be implemented. We are no longer living in an environment when any Government can displace thousands of people from their homes. I am sorry that RE and Cabinet should have endorsed another project which is socially and financially out of the question.'"*
Ringway 1 seems to have led a dual life: it was doomed from 1969 as the Treasury tried to kill it off, and yet simultaneously managed to clear the hurdles of the inquiry and public opposition to achieve full Cabinet approval. How it reached Cabinet when it had effectively been cancelled is not known. Why the GLC pushed ahead when they could be certain the Treasury would refuse to fund it and Boroughs would refuse to back it is equally mysterious. But either way, the Ringways had come to a messy end. What now for London's traffic?
Ironically, 1973 was the year the Ringways were killed off and it was in that same year that the Ministry of Transport started work on the first section of Ringway 3: under construction between Potters Bar and Cheshunt was a new motorway, designed to form part of Ringway 3's Northern Section, known as M16. Construction work took the usual two years. Before it opened, the Ministry announced that the M16 scheme was to be merged with the M25, which had previously been only the southern and western sections of Ringway 4. This decision made them into one circular motorway, avoiding the need to build the most controversial sections of Ringway 3. The whole thing would be called M25.
Shortly afterwards the GLC announced that it was formally cancelling the Ringway 2 plans, and would no longer be protecting the line of it and many other motorways on the grounds that the M25 made them unnecessary. This was a considerable u-turn considering that the original plan had called for all of the new full-circle M25, plus three other ring roads.
The deal was closed when, in 1986, the last two sections of M25 were opened. Take a look on a map and it's clear that junctions 3 to 5 and junctions 19 to 23, the last to open, are the linking sections joining up the north and east of Ringway 3 with the south and west of Ringway 4. The new sections hijacked parts of the A6 and A21 to make their routes as uncontroversial as possible, and their opening closed the coffin on the Ringways by botching together the bits and pieces that had been built to form one lumpy circuit. This is the M25 we see today: two halves of two different ring roads. Forming only a quarter of the Ringway plan, but trying to be the whole solution, it should come as no surprise that it is the country's most congested road today.
Within London, a few fragments had been built: the Ringway 1 East Cross Route was complete by the early 1970s, and the A40(M) Westway and a short stub of the West Cross Route were open to traffic before the GLDP inquiry halted the plans. Progress was made here and there, where the traffic was worst, and usually involved blowing the dust off a Ringway proposal and building it to a lower specification. Today most of the North Circular Road is a watered-down Ringway 2, for example, and the A2 Rochester Way Relief Road is the poor cousin of the A2(M) Dover Radial Route proposals. Further plans were made for a less intrusive improvement on the line of the West Cross Route, which survived until the late 1980s but ultimately came to nothing, while plans for what was originally the Ringway 2 crossing of the Thames in east London have been resurrected, with the proposal now renamed the Thames Gateway Bridge and incorporating tram tracks and cycle lanes.
The final indignity to the few bits of genuine Ringway came in 2000, when control of most roads in the Greater London area transferred to Transport for London. A bureaucratic error meant that TfL did not have the authority to be the managing authority for motorways, and as a result the motorway remnants of Ringway 1 were downgraded to A-roads. The A40(M) Westway became plain A40, the A102(M) East Cross Route became A12, and the erstwhile M41 West Cross Route now revels in the name A3220. From notoriety to obscurity in thirty years.
The following pages detail the roads that made up the Ringway plans section-by-section, starting with the most notorious of all, Ringway 1.
* The phrase "another project" seems to be a reference to the plans for Maplin Airport, a third London airport built land reclaimed from the sea, which would have come a close second to the Ringways in terms of cost. It had been scrapped a few years earlier because of the astronomical prices involved.