A Brief History of British Roads Policy

Richard Wellings

First published in 2004

The first government road policies pre-date the invention of motor vehicles. In 1663 the first Parliamentary Act was passed granting authority to collect tolls for a section of the Great North Road, the first turnpike. The formation of the turnpike trusts transferred control of road maintenance and investment away from the local parishes, reducing the burden on local ratepayers. The trustees could erect gates, collect tolls, buy land, mortgage the toll yield, widen and divert the course of the road, and indeed there is considerable evidence that considerable attention was paid to surfacing, improved drainage, widening, easing gradients and other improvements. By 1770, as the industrial revolution began to take off, Britain boasted an extensive and integrated 20,000-mile network of toll roads (Albert, 1983, 44).

During the second half of the 19th century the turnpike trusts drifted into insolvency and the roads into disrepair and local council control as more and more long-distance transport went by railway. The rail network had expanded with astonishing rapidity since the opening of the Stockton and Darlington line in 1825. While it took five years for the second line, the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, to be completed, the network had passed 2000 miles by 1842 (Henshaw, 1991, 17). Although each new route required an Act of Parliament, the sheer rapidity of construction suggests that there were as yet relatively few governmental constraints on the early Victorian railway entrepreneurs.

The last turnpike trust folded in 1895, the year the roads lobby was born in the Self-Propelled Traffic Association, and just one year before the Conservative government introduced a Bill in the House of Lords to make possible the use of “light locomotives” on public roads, overturning the Highways and Locomotives Act of 1878 which famously required motor vehicles to be preceded by a man waving a red flag (Barker and Gerhold, 1993, 76). Transport policy had now entered a more regulated age, with government seeking to control the effects of new transport technologies. Indeed, government even controlled freight tariffs over the railway network, a policy which arguably led to the over expansion of the network.

Government policy up to World War One can hardly be described as pro-roads. A major concern was the amount of dust thrown up behind motor vehicles engulfing cyclists and pedestrians. According to Plowden (1971) the Road Fund (introduced in the 1909 budget with the support of the AA and RAC), which hypothecated government revenues from petrol tax and vehicle duty to road improvement, was introduced primarily to provide dust-free roads and indeed 90% of the newly established Central Roads Board’s expenditure went on small scale surface improvements. Virtually no new roads were built and the 20 mph limit introduced in 1904 was retained. Furthermore, by March 1915 two thirds of the road fund revenues had not been spent (ibid, 108). Meanwhile, the number of private cars in Britain had risen from 16,000 to 132,000 in the period 1905-1914 (Bagwell, 1996, 20).

During the First World War the private car slowly came to be regarded as a symbol of unpatriotic luxury (Plowden, 1971, 110) and once again roads and roads transport received few favours in government policy. A 33% duty was imposed on imported cars in 1915 and petrol tax was doubled in 1916. The Exchequer borrowed the Road Fund surplus and petrol rationing was introduced in 1918. Furthermore, the ravages of war produced a marked deterioration in the condition of the roads (ibid, 118). But the war had more far-reaching effects on transport policy than these. The problems of transport co-ordination it presented, as well as the expansion of the role of state in general, led to the creation of the Ministry of Transport in 1919 (Bagwell, 1996, 62).

The Ministry’s first task was bringing road traffic law up to date although no significant legislation resulted until 1930, when the widely ignored 20 mph speed limit was abolished and compulsory third party insurance introduced (Plowden, 1971, 261). During the 1920s issues of traffic law and road safety were largely overshadowed by the battle over the future of the road fund, which as car ownership increased rapidly again, began to produce large revenues. Between 1920 and 1925 the Treasury conducted a relentless campaign to gain control over the revenues from motor taxation. The Ministry of Transport responded by asserting that road schemes were vital for the relief of unemployment. Indeed, road investment was enjoying a revival due to increasing road fund revenues and the 1919 grant of £8.5 million from the Exchequer to repair war damage. However, at the same time as public investment in roads was being increased via the road fund the MoT took steps to prohibit private road investment.

In the early 1920s several private consortia proposed a series of new profit-making toll motorways from London to the major cities, usually with the support of local authorities. Maybury, the Minister of Transport, objected on principle to “the placing of very important road traffic arteries in the hands of private capitalist enterprise, to be operated for profit”, although the real reason for the prohibition may have had more to do with the MoT protecting its field of operation (ibid, 193). The contrast in approach was thus very different from that a century earlier when government had allowed the private sector to construct a vast network of railways as soon as the technology became viable. Clearly an enormous shift in the political culture had taken place with a concomitant impact on transport policy. Accordingly the issue of private roads did not greatly concern the motor lobby with the AA and the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) preoccupied by their campaign to reform the Horsepower Tax (Vehicle Excise Duty) which was thought to unfairly penalise private road users as well as stunting the manufacture and export of high performance cars.

However, these campaigns diminished in importance upon the election of a Conservative government in 1925 and the introduction of a new set of transport policies. One of the first acts of the new parliament was to restore car import duties to war levels. For the motoring lobby worse was to come. In 1926 Chancellor Winston Churchill ended the hypothecation of the Road Fund. A third of the yield from private vehicles would be regarded as a tax on the ‘luxury’ component of car use and therefore be transferred to the Exchequer, a sum of £7 million in 1926. Further revenue was raised from road users in 1928 via an extra petrol tax of 4d a gallon to finance the government’s interventionist industrial policy. During this period of mass unemployment the car was depicted as an unnecessary luxury. According to Churchill the extra tax fell on “the buoyant pleasure motor vehicles of every class” (Plowden, 1971, 214). Thus the mid-20s saw the beginning of a new government approach to road transport policy, which has arguably continued to the present. Road transport became a convenient source for significant tax revenues, which were easy to collect, relatively inelastic and predictable.

A major underlying rationale for the tax rises may have been to bolster the profitability of the railways. For Plowden this subtext is fundamental to transport policy during the inter-war years (ibid, 195). In 1925, a Mr Hurst of the Treasury minuted that competition between road and rail could be made ‘fair’ only by subsidising railways or by increasing the taxation on roads. Ironically these tax rises probably made governments more and more dependent on the revenues from road transport and therefore less likely to do anything radical to restrict the growth in traffic and protect the railway companies’ market share.

These consequences may have been compounded by a dramatic speed up in the road programme in the five years from 1929. The primary motivation for this policy was the relief of unemployment and large government grants were made available for the building of trunk roads. Indeed in 1930 some £60 million was spent on the roads, a sum 50% larger than the year’s motoring tax receipts, although the figure includes money spent out of the road fund’s substantial surpluses from previous years (ibid, 289).

In 1932 the motor lobby, including the SMMT and the AA set up the British Roads Federation in order to campaign specifically for increased road spending, marking the beginning of a more systematic and organised approach to lobbying on this issue. However, the costs of re-armament combined with falling unemployment meant that by 1935 road expenditure had begun to be reduced. The years of the Great Depression were to be the only period of the 20th century when road expenditure exceeded the revenue from motoring taxes.

The notion of the motorist as an overtaxed net contributor to the government subsequently gained widespread currency in the motor lobby, perhaps by reference to the original hypothecation of the Road Fund. However, as adherents to theories of government failure would point out, the Road Fund did not behave like a private provider of road space might. The amount of revenue raised was under political control and there was no price mechanism to determine an appropriate tax rate to maximise receipts and therefore expenditure. Furthermore, the spatial distribution of road investment was to a large extent determined by political factors, such as the relief of local unemployment, rather than the wants of road users. In particular this meant that roads in and around the main conurbations received a disproportionately small share of overall expenditure (Roth, 1995). In addition, the Road Fund offered motorists little protection from often expensive government regulations, and by the end of the 1930s, despite varying degrees of protest from the motor lobby, both compulsory third party insurance and driving tests had been introduced as a response to the growing number of casualties on the roads.

Commercial road transport had also become subject to a much higher level of regulation. The Road and Rail Traffic Act (1933) required vehicles to be kept in a fit and serviceable condition and their drivers were forbidden to drive continuously for more than a specified number of hours. Log books had to be kept and a complex tiered system of licensing adhered to. General hauliers were obliged to satisfy their local Area Traffic Commissioners that ‘suitable transport facilities’ were not already available (Barker & Gerhold, 1993, 87). Thus the 1930s were marked by a pronounced bureaucratisation of road transport.

Furthermore, the UK’s road infrastructure, despite the spending burst during the depression, had begun to lag far behind that of its economic rivals. By 1939 Germany, Italy and the United States all had extensive motorway networks (Charlesworth, 1984, 13). In Germany almost 2,000 miles of autobahn was completed with a further 1,000 miles under construction, a total greater than the UK’s network sixty years later. Only a small fraction of this mileage reflected military imperatives, army leaders favouring railway transport (Freeman, 1987, 116). Indeed, Hitler’s blueprint for the Volkswagen Beetle is evidence that mass motoring was viewed as compatible with extreme Nazi egalitarianism. In Italy, Mussolini’s “third way” between capitalism and communism also promoted mass car ownership and motorway construction.

British transport policy preferences of the inter-war period appear to have reflected a combination of hierarchical and egalitarian biases, the former through the formation and regulation of the Ministry of Transport, and the latter through the depiction of the car as an unnecessary luxury and associated increased taxation, as well as the deployment of road construction as a means to ameliorate mass unemployment. Certainly, individualism lost out. Public choice mechanisms, such as lobbying of the government by the private railway companies, apparently played an instrumental role in filtering out individualist preferences from policy outcomes.

The degree of government intervention in transport increased still further as war loomed once again. The motor manufacturers were co-opted into the government’s ‘shadow factory’ scheme, designed to increase the UK’s engineering capacity. Once again the government’s reliance on what might be termed the ‘road transport economy’ increased. However, this did not prevent immediate restrictions on private motoring after the start of the Second World War. Petrol rationing was almost immediate, followed in October 1940 by the introduction of a 33.5% purchase tax on cars (Plowden, 1971, 301). Civilian car production ceased and in spring 1942 even the basic petrol ration was abolished. Expenditure on the roads was pared down to essential maintenance, although the war years were characterised by an increasing reliance on road freight transport, the number of goods vehicles almost doubling.

In 1947 the Labour government’s Transport Act nationalised the railways and the road haulage industry (private businesses who carried their own goods were excluded) although the latter was largely returned to private ownership by the Conservatives in 1954. The period of ‘austerity motoring’ lasted until May 1950 when petrol rationing was finally ended. However, the new Conservative government’s main imperatives were the raising of revenue and the balance of trade. Accordingly petrol tax and car purchase tax were doubled, while at the same time motor manufacturers were ordered to export 60% of their production. The home market was severely restricted with the motor trade allocating new cars to those in deserving occupations such as doctors and vets. After the abolition of the quota scheme in 1953 car ownership began to rise very rapidly. However, road investment had not been a priority in the years following the war. Indeed, in the period 1948-53 average annual expenditure on major improvements and new construction was in real terms just 21% of the 1936-38 average (Plowden, 1971, 327). The low investment levels reflected both a serious underestimation of future traffic growth by the MoT and Treasury reluctance to engage in large-scale capital spending. In 1952 the Treasury said it was satisfied if the ministry continued its road spending at about 70% of the 1938 figure (Savage, 1966, 199-200).

From the mid to late 1950s the problems of traffic congestion became more and more apparent, especially in London. Furthermore, there was a great deal of concern over the number of road accidents. The Queen’s speech of 1954 linked road safety to road expenditure, beginning the government policy of justifying schemes such as bypasses and motorways on the grounds that the number of accidents would be reduced (ibid, 335). At the same time the government was becoming increasingly aware that the car could no longer be treated as a middle class luxury and began devising strategies to cope with the problems posed by mass motoring. Thus the MoT began pressing local authorities to introduce more parking controls in order to reduce rush hour congestion. Official policy aimed to push more and more traffic through existing street systems via measure like clearways, pink zones and the new 40mph limit.

Commentators began to recognise the environmental impact of road transport. Buchanan’s Mixed Blessing (1958) argued that motors could no longer be comfortably accommodated within a 19th century urban fabric (the structure of cities had been to a significant extent fossilised by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act). The car was becoming an environmental threat. Thus in 1960 the MoT formed a study group under Buchanan with the task of studying “the long term development of roads and traffic in urban areas and their influence on the urban environment” (Plowden, 1971, 348).

The 1963 Buchanan Report Traffic in Towns was the most far-reaching and influential survey of the environmental impact of road transport to date. Pollution and congestion problems were seen as inextricably linked to urban form and therefore could be best dealt with via planning tools. The report was far from an anti-car tract and a system of local and through roads was envisaged to cope with rising traffic levels. Thus, in accordance with the hierarchist conception of nature, the effects of the car could be contained by careful management by ‘experts’. Correspondingly, at the same time as the enactment of the Beeching Report savaged the railway network, government policy had begun to favour large-scale investment in roads. Between 1961 and 1968 roads expenditure rose by an average 11% per annum, a large proportion being spent on the construction of Britain’s motorway network (Plowden, 1971, 359). However, these increases were more than matched by rises in motoring taxes, which had come to be used as tools in the government’s Keynesian macro-economic management. Furthermore, the apparent generosity of UK road spending is diminished by geographical comparison. By the end of the 1960s, after successive 11% annual increases, UK expenditure on roads was the lowest in the developed world as measured by spending per vehicle and less than half that in Belgium, Italy, Canada, Sweden, West Germany, and Japan (Aird, 1972, 85). At 1.3% of Gross National Product (GNP) road spending was significantly lower than the world average of 2% (ibid), although significantly higher than the spending peak of the early 1990’s. The UK supposedly had the most crowded roads in the world (as measured by the number of vehicles per kilometre of road) with the single exception of Hong Kong (ibid).

The impact of demand management was also keenly felt by the motor manufacturers who among other restrictions, were coerced into locating plants in deprived peripheral areas such as Merseyside and Clydeside. Furthermore, many of the British-owned companies had been amalgamated and nationalised with the Labour governments of 1964-1970 prepared to invest large sums of public money in order to build a large and prosperous motor industry. Thus by the end of the 1960s the UK government had a significant direct stake in the success of the motor industry and hence road-based transport.

The 1960s therefore marked a sea change in cultural biases towards motoring. Car ownership, still seen as an unnecessary luxury in the years after the war, had reached a critical stage. Egalitarians, who had previously believed the car to be a rich man’s toy to be taxed for re-distributive purposes, began to see car ownership as desirable for the working classes. In other words, that the benefits of car ownership should no longer be preserved for the rich. This changed viewpoint, influenced by strong economic growth and rapid technological development, helps explain the apparently contradictory motorway building of Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the desire to build a large and prosperous motor industry to provide economical vehicles for the masses. However, these policy goals were arguably partially undermined by persistent economic crises and poor labour relations.

The trend of increased government involvement in road transport coincided with the development of modern environmentalism during the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) challenged the modernist technological shibboleths of the post-war years by identifying the potentially disastrous environmental consequences of chemical pollution. Although the book was primarily concerned with the dangers of pesticides, it contributed to a shift in perceptions regarding the external effects of motor vehicles. Concerns about the effects of exhaust emissions were added to more traditional objections such as noise and the despoliation of the countryside.

Accordingly, the environmental movement gathered strength in the 1970s. It gained intellectual support from the publication of The Limits to Growth report in 1972 (Meadows et al, 1972) The study argued that within a time span of less than 100 years modern civilisation would run out of the non-renewable resources that provided its economic base. The result would be a Malthusian cocktail of massive unemployment, decreased food production and a soaring death rate. Furthermore, the report concluded that even if vast new reserves of non-renewable resources were to become available economic collapse would still occur due to the excessive pollution generated by the increased industrialisation permitted by the greater availability of resources. Civilisation could only be saved by the immediate imposition of limits on pollution, population growth and economic growth.

Environmentalists adapted the ideas contained in The Limits to Growth to road transport. Road building and increased car ownership were inextricably linked to increases in fossil fuel consumption and economic growth in general. Furthermore, the notion of finite limits to economic expansion undoubtedly contributed to the subsequent development of the ‘new realist’ perspective on transport policy.

The impact of environmental thinking on both the public and government increased following the oil crisis of 1973. The resulting petrol shortages, combined with price rises, as well as rampant stagflation, added to the plausibility of ideas about finite resources. Through the remainder of the 1970s the environmental movement became more and more organised and road builders at the Department of Transport increasingly faced well prepared opposition during the public inquiries held to discuss proposed schemes (Smith, 1995). Regional and global issues, such as Acid Rain and fossil fuel dependency, were added to the debates and on occasions direct protests were employed. However, both car ownership and road use kept rising despite higher fuel prices.

The election of a comparatively radical Conservative government in 1979, whose ideology has been characterised as “free economy/strong state” (Gamble, 1988, 28), arguably made the environmentalist’s task even more difficult. Although the deep recession of 1980-82 and the resulting spending cuts led to a reduction in road spending and further increases in motoring taxes, perhaps more significant was the new government’s attitude towards public transport. Its medium-term aim became the reduction then removal of central government subsidies to both the buses and railways, resulting eventually in the policies of bus deregulation (1986) and rail privatisation (1994-97).

As the UK economy recovered strongly in the mid-1980s both car ownership and traffic levels began to increase rapidly, aided by rises in motoring taxation which were restrained by historical standards and a dramatic fall in oil prices. These factors undoubtedly played a large part in the formation of what Rawcliffe (1995, 30) describes as “unprecedented congestion levels” in the late 1980s and thus the major problem that the DTp’s Roads for Prosperity sought to address with its expanded roads programme.

Concurrent with record levels of traffic congestion at this time, was a record level of public support for environmentalist causes. Membership of environmental groups rose rapidly in the mid-late 1980s. The biggest recipients of new members were the more radical groups, which had come to be identified with campaigns on the big global environmental issues. The membership of both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth more than quadrupled between 1985 and 1989 (Rawcliffe, 1995, 20). The combined membership of environmental groups reached 4 million people in 1989 (ibid). Clearly the Government found it difficult to ignore a movement of this size. In 1988 Prime Minister Thatcher declared her own conversion to the environmentalist cause, stating, “We Conservatives…are the natural guardians of the environment” (Royal Society News, 1988, 4). This was not sufficient to prevent 15% of voters supporting the Green Party in the 1989 elections for the European Parliament in a short lived demonstration of the salience of the environment issue. The heightened level of public awareness arguably carried on into the 1990s with devastating consequences for the road programme.


As socialist-egalitarian ideologies grew in strength during the first half of the twentieth century so too did their impact on transport policy. Gradually, the degree of state intervention in transport increased stage by stage, until by the late 1940s, both the railways and long-distance road haulage had been nationalised. Even the ostensibly individualist Thatcher government during the 1980s did little to fundamentally reduce the role of government in transport, with the notable exception of the air industry. Moreover, the Conservative government actively embraced many environmentalist arguments despite their basic incompatibility with economic liberalism.

The activities of bureaucrats and other special interests clearly played an instrumental role in the precise translation of ideological preferences into specific transport policy outcomes. The Ministry of Transport managed to strangle a private motorway system at birth in the 1920s, at a time when the resulting economies of scale and other productivity enhancements could have done much to improve British competitiveness relative to countries such as the United States that did embrace such new technological opportunities. Furthermore, transport users gradually became burdened with more and more regulation from the MoT test (lobbied for by the motor manufacturers) to catalytic converters (favoured by environmentalists).

It can be concluded that an understanding of the roles of both underlying ideological preferences and public choice processes are essential to the analysis of the development of transport policy in Britain. At the same time the importance of exogenous factors should not be underestimated. The negative impact of two world wars on the country’s transport infrastructure took decades to recover from. Similarly, the persistent economic crises that dogged Britain in the 20th century meant that short-term Treasury cuts often took their toll on infrastructure investment. The resulting cocktail of uncertainty and political meddling provides a powerful argument against government involvement in transport.


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