The London Ringways were a series of four ring roads planned to circle London at various distances from the city centre. They were part of a comprehensive scheme developed by the Greater London Council (GLC) to alleviate traffic congestion on the city's road system by providing high speed motorway-standard roads within the capital linking a series of radial roads taking traffic into and out of the city.
The Ringways originated from earlier plans including the County of London Plan, and were developed in the 1960s in response to increasing concern about car ownership and traffic. The plans attracted increasing opposition towards the end of the decade over the demolition of properties and noise pollution the roads would cause. Following a series of protests, the scheme was cancelled in 1973, at which point only three sections had been built. Some traffic routes originally planned for the Ringways were re-used for other road schemes in the 1980s and 1990s.
- 1 Ringways
- 2 History
- 3 Legacy
- 4 Documentation
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Gallery
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 External links
The North Cross Route began south of Willesden Junction and followed the London Overground line up to the line of the M1, then between the Midland main line and Metropolitan line, with a link to Finchley Road. It passed through Hampstead owing to local geography, and over British Rail's goods depot at Camden Town, where there was to be an interchange with a town bypass. It followed railways to the north of St Pancras and King's Cross, then run in a tunnel through Highbury, and cross Kingsland High Street on a viaduct, leading to a junction with the East Cross Route by Hackney Wick.
The whole of the East Cross Route was built and follows the A12 to Bow Road, then the A102 through the Blackwall Tunnel to the Sun in the Sands roundabout, and the A2 to Kidbrooke, meeting the South Cross Route.
The South Cross Route ran beneath Blackheath Park in a tunnel, following railways as much as possible for its route though Peckham, Loughborough Park and Clapham to Nine Elms. There was then a link to the West Cross Route and Ringway 2 at Wandsworth.
The West Cross Route followed the West London line, with a bridge over the Thames near Chelsea Basin. There was a planned interchange with the A4 Cromwell Road and Holland Park Avenue. The section north to the Westway was built. North of here, it would have continued to follow the West London line, crossing the Great Western railway and the Grand Union Canal, linking with the North Cross Route by Willesden Junction.
The North Circular route was built, though not to the intended standard. From the A13, it crossed the Thames in a four-lane dual carriageway tunnel underneath towards Thamesmead. After crossing Shooters Hill Road, it passed through Oxleas Wood towards the A2. It then ran in a cutting through Eltham Warren Golf Course, then across the Royal Blackheath Golf Club. It briefly shadowed the Dartford Loop Line before running in a cutting along Carters Hill. There was then an elevated section across Beckenham Hill station and the Birbeck railway line towards Elmers End, where there was an interchange. It continued in a cutting under South Norwood Hill, passing north of South Norwood and Thornton Heath. After an elevated interchange with the A23, it ran north west, crossing the Brighton main line and reaching a major junction with the M23. It crossed the A24 at Colliers Wood towards Wandsworth, where there was a link to Ringway 1. Ringway 2 would have headed roughly in a direction towards the North Circular Road at Chiswick, though there was no definite proposed route.
Ringway 3 was a new road, the north section of which became part of the M25 from South Mimms to Swanley via the Dartford Crossing. It was intended for traffic bypassing London, and was a Government scheme outside of the remit of London County Council. The route was roughly based on the earlier "D" ring designed by Patrick Abercrombie. The southern section was never planned in detail, so a specific route does not exist. The section in West London was eventually built to a lower standard as the A312.
Ringway 4 was new road, the south section of which became part of the M25 and M26 from Wrotham Heath to Hunton Bridge. Sections of the A405 and A414 through Hertfordshire are on the proposed line of Ringway 4.
London had been significantly congested since the 17th century. Various select committees were established in the late 1830s and early 1840s in order establish a means of improving communication and transport in the city. A Royal Commission was appointed in 1903, led by William Rees Jeffreys and producing eight volumes of reports, including a suggestion of a circular ring road around London.
Between 1913 and 1916, a series of conferences took place, bringing all road plans in Greater London together as a single body. Over the next decade, 214 miles (344 km) of new roads were constructed, primarily as post-war unemployment relief. These included the North Circular Road from Hanger Lane to Gants Hill, Western Avenue and Eastern Avenue, the Great West Road bypassing Brentford, and bypasses of Kingston, Croydon, Watford and Barnet. In 1924, the Ministry of Transport proposed another circular route, the North Orbital Road. This ran further out from London than the North Circular and was planned to be around 70 miles (110 km) long, running from the A4 at Colnbrook to the A13 at Tilbury.
The Highway Development Survey, 1937
In May 1938, Sir Charles Bressey and Sir Edwin Lutyens published a Ministry of Transport report, The Highway Development Survey, 1937, which reviewed London's road needs and recommended the construction of many miles of new roads and the improvement of junctions at key congestion points. Amongst their proposals was the provision of a series of orbital roads around the city with the outer ones built as American-style Parkways – wide, landscaped roads with limited access and grade-separated junctions.
Bressey's plans called for significant demolition of existing properties, that would have divided communities if they had been built. However, he reported that the average traffic speed on three of London's radial routes was 12.5 miles per hour (20.1 km/h), and consequently their construction was essential. The plans stalled, as the London County Council were responsible for roads in the capital, and could not find adequate funding.
County of London Plan and Greater London Plan, 1940s
The Ringway plan had developed from early schemes prior to the Second World War through Sir Patrick Abercrombie's County of London Plan, 1943 and Greater London Plan, 1944. One of the topics that Abercrombie's two plans had examined was London's traffic congestion, and The County of London Plan proposed a series of ring roads labelled A to E to help remove traffic from the central area.
Even in a war-ravaged city with large areas requiring reconstruction, the building of the two innermost rings, A and B, would have involved considerable demolition and upheaval. The cost of the construction works needed to upgrade the existing London streets and roads to dual carriageway or motorway standards was considered significant; the A ring would have displaced 5,300 families.
Because of post-war funding shortages, Abercrombie's plans were not intended to be carried out immediately. They were intended to be gradually built over the next 30 years. The subsequent austerity period meant that very little of his plan was carried out. The A Ring was formally cancelled by Clement Attlee's Labour government in May 1950. After 1951, the County of London focused on improving existing roads rather than Abercrombie's proposals.
Ringway Scheme, 1960s
By the start of the 1960s, the number of private cars and commercial vehicles on the roads had increased considerably from the number before the war. British car manufacturing doubled between 1953 and 1960. The Conservative government, led by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, had strong ties to the road transport industry, with more than 70 members of parliament being members of the British Road Federation. Political pressure to build roads and improve vehicular traffic increased, which led to a revival of Abercrombie's plans.
The Ringway plan took Abercrombie's earlier schemes as a starting point and reused many of his proposals in the outlying areas but scrapped the plans in the inner zone. Abercrombie's A Ring was scrapped as being far too expensive and impractical. The innermost circuit, Ringway 1, was approximately the same distance from the centre as the B Ring. It used some of Abercrombie's suggested route, but it was planned to use existing transport corridors, such as railway lines, much more than before. The location of these lines produced a ring that was distinctly box-shaped and Ringway 1 was unofficially called the London Motorway Box.
In 1963, Colin Buchanan published a report, Traffic in Towns, which had been commissioned by the Transport Minister, Ernest Marples. In contrast to earlier reports, it cautioned that road building would generate and increase traffic and cause environmental damage. It also recommended pedestrianisation of town centres and segregating different traffic types. The report was published by Penguin Books and sold 18,000 copies. Several key ideas in the report would later be perceived as being correct as road protesting grew from the 1980s onward. The London Traffic Survey was published the following year, and concluded that the Ringways should be built in order to cater for future network traffic, instead of Traffic in Towns which said if a road was not built, there would be no demand along that route anyway. The 1960s plans were developed over a period of several years and were subject to a continuing process of review and modification. Roads were added and omitted as the overall scheme was altered and many alternative route alignments were considered during the planning process. The plan was published in stages starting with Ringway 1 in 1966 and Ringway 2 in 1967. After the Conservatives won the GLC elections in the latter year, they confirmed that both Ringways would be constructed as planned.
The plan was hugely ambitious and almost immediately attracted opposition from several directions. Ringway 1 was designed to be an eight-lane elevated motorway running through the middle of Camden Town. A principal problem was the route of Ringway 2 in south London, since the South Circular was largely an unimproved series of urban streets and there were fewer railway lines to follow. Parts would be built with four lanes in each direction, and in some cases there was no other plan than to destroy whatever urban streets were in the way of the new road. At Blackheath, the road would have run in a deep-bored tunnel to avoid any impact on the local area, at an estimated cost of £38 million. However, until around 1967 the opposition was more towards specific proposals instead of the concept of Ringways generally.
The report Motorways in London, published in 1969 by the architect/planner Lord Esher and Michael Thomson, a transport economist at the London School of Economics, calculated that costs had been enormously underestimated and would show marginal economic returns. They predicted large quantities of additional traffic that would be generated purely as a result of the new roads. Access to the new roads would soon be overwhelmed even before the rings and radial roads were near capacity, while about 1 million Londoners would find their lives blighted by living within 200 yards of a motorway. Reports suggested between 15,000 and 80,000 Londoners would lose their homes as a result of the Ringways. The Treasury and the Department of Transport both came out against the scheme, primarily because of worries over the cost.
Despite this opposition, the GLC continued to develop its plans, and began the construction of some of the parts of the scheme. The plan, still with much of the detail to be worked out, was included in the Greater London Development Plan, 1969 (GLDP) along with much else not related to roads and traffic management. In 1970, the GLC estimated that the cost of building Ringway 1 along with sections of 2 and 3 would be £1.7 billion. (approximately £25.8 billion today) Three-quarters of this would have to come from central government grants.
In 1970, the British Road Federation surveyed 2,000 Londoners, 80% of whom favoured more new roads being built. In contrast, a public enquiry was held to review the GLDP in a climate of strong and vocal opposition from many of the London Borough councils and residents associations that would have seen motorways driven through their neighbourhoods. The Westway and a section of the West Cross Route from Shepherd's Bush to North Kensington, opened in 1970. It showed the public what the Ringways would be like for local residents and what demolition would be required, and led to increased complaints over the scheme. The GLDP received 22,000 formal objections by 1972. The GLC realised that the South Cross Route might be impractical to build, and looked instead at integrating public transport through a new park-and-ride scheme at Lewisham that would serve a new Fleet line on the London Underground.
The GLC attempted to hold on to the Ringway plans until the early 1970s, hoping that they would eventually be built. By 1972, in an attempt to placate the Ringway plan's vociferous opponents, the GLC removed the northern section of Ringway 1 and the southern section of Ringway 2 from the proposals. In January 1973, the enquiry recommended that Ringway 1 be built, but that much of the rest of the Ringway schemes be abandoned. The project was submitted to the Conservative government for approval and, for a short period, it appeared that the GLC had made enough concessions for the scheme to proceed. A report around this time commissioned by Frank Layfield showed that the GLDP was too dependent on roads for its transport plans. Because the GLC had proposed the Ringways as a complete scheme, protesters against specific parts of it in different areas were able to unite against a common goal, which led to the Layfield Inquiry successfully challenging the proposals.
The Labour party made large gains in the GLC elections of April 1973 with a policy of fighting the Ringways scheme. Given the continuing fierce opposition across London and the likely enormous cost, the cabinet cancelled funding and hence the project.
In the central London area only the East Cross Route and part of the West Cross Route of Ringway 1 were constructed together with the elevated Westway which links Paddington to North Kensington. These were all begun and completed before the plan was cancelled. With its elevated roadway on concrete pylons flying above the streets below at rooftop height, the Westway provides a good example of how much of Ringway 1 would have appeared had it been constructed. The East Cross route was the only part to be built in its entirety and it includes a permanently unfinished junction at Hackney Wick with the proposed North Cross Route.
The North Circular Road (A406) section of Ringway 2 survived the cancellation of the Ringways. It remained a trunk road and a 5.5-mile (8.9 km) extension from South Woodford to Barking had land reserved from 1968. This extension was approved in 1976, and opened in 1987. Improvements have been made to the existing North Circular, so that most of it is now dual carriageway. However, these have been done in a piecemeal fashion so that the road varies in quality and capacity along its length and still has several unimproved single carriageway sections and awkward junctions.
By comparison, very little has been done to improve the condition of the South Circular Road (A205) (which has complex junctions and forks) and no part of the southern part of Ringway 2 has been built, mainly because of the density of the residential areas through which the South Circular runs. The road remains predominantly single carriageway throughout. One relic of the scheme is Southwyck House in Brixton, which was deliberately designed to shield noise from Ringway 2, leading to its nickname of "Barrier Block".
Parts of Ringways 3 and 4 were started soon after Ringway 1 was cancelled. The first section of the northern half of Ringway 3 was constructed between South Mimms and Potters Bar and opened in 1975. The first section of Ringway 4 was built between Godstone and Reigate and opened the following year. Before the first of these opened, the planned north and east sections of Ringway 3 and the planned south and west sections of Ringway 4 were combined as the M25 (the northern part was initially designated as the M16 during the planning stages but opened as the M25). The remaining sections of these two circular routes were never built.
The M23 was particularly affected by the cancellation of the Ringways. The original plan had been to connect it to Ringway 2 near Streatham, and when the Ringway was cancelled, it was extended to meet Ringway 1 near Stockwell. Once the Ringways were cancelled completely, there seemed little point in finishing the M23 as it would drop all its traffic onto surburban streets.
However, the M23 up to Streatham remained a projected route throughout the 1970s, and appeared on some road atlases of the time. The Wallington M23 Action Group campaigned for the motorway to be formally cancelled, as the inability to develop land along the line of the proposed M23 had led to planning blight in the area. In 1978, the M23 north of Hooley was cancelled, to be replaced by an all-purpose relief road replacing the A23. Some residents complained, saying the motorway should still be built, and that its terminus at Hooley caused a build up of traffic there, and contributed to congestion on other roads. These proposals were cancelled in May 1980.
The M23 to Streatham was briefly revived in 1985 by the GLC after the government had announced plans to spend £1.5 billion on trunk roads in London. In December 2006, the Coulsdon Relief Road was opened by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. It was one of the few road proposals approved by the anti-car Livingstone, and included a dedicated lane for buses and cycles.
Some of the radial routes that were planned to connect to the Ringway system were built much as planned, including the M1 and M4. Other radial roads, such as the M3, M11 and M23, were truncated on the outskirts of London far from their intended terminal junctions on Ringway 1. Others were simply not built at all in a form recognisable from the Ringway proposal.
In 2000, Transport for London (TfL) was formed, taking responsibility for all related projects in Greater London, including roads. They did not have responsibility for maintaining any motorways, so the built parts of the Westway and West and East Cross Routes were downgraded to all-purpose roads. TfL has concentrated primarily on improving public transport in London and discouraging the use of private cars where practical. The only new road constructed by TfL has been the Coulsdon Relief Road.
The feedback and complaints from the Ringway plans led to an increased interest towards road protest in the United Kingdom. These included opposition to transport projects such as Twyford Down and Heathrow Terminal 5 and industrial projects such as Hinkley Point C nuclear power station.
The Ringway plans were largely made in secret, and in some cases no definitive route was made, which has made it difficult to work out its exact route and impact. Consequently, the project is not particularly well-known to the general British public. The website roads.org.uk, run by enthusiast Chris Marshall, has been praised for its level of detail in researching the Ringways, and cited as a definitive source of information.
London ring roads
- M11 motorway – was planned to connect to the Ringways plan; eventually, in the 1990s, the M11 link road (part of the A12) controversially connected to the North Circular Road (see M11 link road protest)
- M12 motorway – unbuilt motorway connecting M11 and Ringways 2 and 3 with Brentwood or Chelmsford
- M15 motorway – unused motorway designation for Ringway 2
- M16 motorway – unused motorway designation for Ringway 3
- M23 motorway – was once intended to extend northwards to Ringway 2
London orbital railways
- Orbirail – unimplemented
- London Overground – includes connected routes through north and south London
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