Cast your mind back to the Chancellor’s autumn statement late last year and you might remember a promise… that more money was now scheduled to be spent on the British road network than at any time since the 1970’s.
Road-users everywhere will surely be thankful, but the proclamation was easily made – largely because the early 1970’s marked the end of a brief golden age in British road building.
A long, uncomfortable and ultimately sad story followed – and road users today are still living with the legacy.
Truth is, political will and financial priorities shifted so far and so rapidly during the 1970’s that Britain entered the 1980’s seeing major reductions in both new road development and existing road maintenance, and its been pretty much downhill ever since.
Today its hard to miss the consequences of declining maintenance funding, but rather less well known is that those changing 1970’s priorities also left Britain with an incomplete, and in some places already sub-standard, motorway network.
A few quite notable motorway schemes of the past never left the drawing board, and here the Western Group region can claim at least three, maybe four skeletons resting in a well hidden cupboard. One has already featured in this series, and governmental retreat in the face of financial pressures led to another – on our area’s northern fringe.
In the 1960’s, road connections through central England from the south west and south Wales to the north east and east midlands were quite simply nightmarish. Linking as directly as possible from M5 north to M1/A1 north, or vice versa, through the midlands involved no motorways and long A road stretches, spiced up with a choice of major town centre bottlenecks, including Walsall, Birmingham or Coventry. South of Birmingham there were 28 exasperating miles of already congested two-lane M5 motorway – opened only in 1962 – connecting traffic into our region at Junction 8, where the M50 and M5 meet – just by Strensham services (see above).
After a widening scheme for this two-lane section was rejected late in the 1960’s, a proposal entered the motorway forward plan to link the M50 from south Wales, via M5 J8, across country to the east, connecting to the then-planned Coventry outer ring road, and onwards to the soon-to-be-constructed M69.
This would ultimately have provided motorway from Exeter and south Wales to the M1 at J21 near Leicester, transforming long distance cross-midlands journeys. The proposal was quickly abandoned, reportedly blocked by the Ministry of Agriculture due to excessive agricultural land take.
Widening the two-lane M5 was then reconsidered – and again rejected… but the planners were clearly acutely aware of the significance of a high speed north east/east midlands to south Wales and the west link, with its potential to divert traffic then obliged to negotiate the entire west midlands urban area.
So another new motorway route was developed, and put through feasibility studies. This headed north-eastwards from the M50/M5 at Strensham, turning west of Alcester and Pershore and east of Redditch before connecting to the soon-to-be-started M42 skirting south east of Solihull and Birmingham.
Here things turn sad. The twelve years beginning in 1958 were heady days indeed for British motorway building: when Edward Heath’s Conservative Government took office in 1970, it found itself very close to meeting a mid-1950’s target of having the first thousand miles of motorway open by then.
In bullish mood, a new target was set: the next thousand miles would be open by 1980. And then, speeding over the horizon, came a succession of 1970’s problems.
Heath’s government was replaced by a second Labour administration under Harold Wilson, there was the oil crisis, major Government spending cuts – and road building was an early casualty.
Despite the vaunted “great car economy” of the Margaret Thatcher years, that second thousand motorway miles wasn’t completed until 2000, twenty years late. No politician has dared set any similar targets since.
The Strensham to M69 and M42 routes were part of that second thousand mile plan, but this particular motorway dream was stalled forever in a seven-line written reply in the House of Commons in February 1974.
Keith Speed MP announced the environment Secretary had decided “…a new major route between Strensham and Solihull would not at present be justified….”
Two consolation prizes were awarded:. Some road improvements in Evesham vale close to the proposed motorway route and, finally, widening of the increasingly-congested two-lane M5 between J4 and J8 got the green light.
But in 1974, roads were fading from Government priorities, and the timetable of subsequent events shows just how far, and how fast, costly road building fell from political grace. Widening work didn’t actually start until November 1978, some four years after the Commons statement, and incredibly, it was May 1993, almost 20 years later, before the final section, from J6 to dear old Strensham, opened to traffic.
Work had involved replacement of every single overbridge on the 28 mile route – the original two-lane section was never designed to allow future widening.
Forty years on from that fateful House of Commons statement, south Wales and the west still await a direct, high quality cross country road link connecting to the north and east of Britain and east midlands.
Today, there’s no sign on the ground of the ambitious plans formulated so long ago, but one clue remains. Junction 8, upgraded during the 1993 widening work, sits rather forlornly in an area of unused land – acquired once upon a time to accommodate a bigger, two-level, four-way, six-lane intersection – for the motorway that never was.
© Map image Ordnance Survey
There is some information about the planned but never built motorway link here:
There’s also quite a lot of detail about the proposals for the motorway route here
A series of maps showing the likely route from Strensham to Solihull M42 is here:
Full details on Strensham services are here – including notes on its long history.(Its one of Britain’s oldest service area locations)
This site shows the opening timeline of Britain’s motorway service areas in some detail. Strensham was the fourth such area to open, initially operated by Kenning (Remember them?)
The reason why the M5 between J3 and J8 was originally built to 2 lane standard when sections north and south of it were 3 lane, and the efforts made to avoid it – plus lots of other background history – is at this link. There’s also an index to the full section-by-section story on how the widening was engineered – including some pictures.
The statement that consigned the Strensham motorway link to history is here:
If you really want to see how far downhill the roads programme went between 1970 and the 1990s the following page makes for sobering reading. See how many major schemes you can spot in this list which still remain unbuilt today…
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…