Vision needed to avoid road to ruin07 Mar 2008

Sixteen centuries on and little improvement has been made to UK roads since Roman Times, according to a new RAC Foundation paper: ‘What Went Wrong? British Highway Development before the Motorways’ out today (7).

Indecision, poor management, the formation of transport departments that do not have a clear remit, and a lack of long-term vision has set back the development of UK roads immeasurably.

The report states that it took 100 years for government to take responsibility for main roads after the turnpike system declined in the mid-19th century, and the RAC Foundation warns that Britain is facing the same economic and financial problems in future years if a coherent long-term plan is not put in place.

Before the mid-16th century it was unusual for Britons to go further than they could walk or travel using horses. During the medieval period owners of land or horses were required to contribute labour and plough-teams for six days each year for the upkeep of the roads.

This system was replaced by turnpikes from the mid-17th century, which allowed parishes to charge a local rate for the upkeep of their roads. Trusts created by Acts of Parliament provided an additional 32,000km of tolled road. Whilst turnpikes were in operation journey times from London to Edinburgh were reduced from 12 days to four.

The benefits brought by the turnpike system could possibly be repeated today with the development of road user charging, but as with turnpikes, road user charging is proving to be an extremely unpopular concept with the voting public.

Turnpikes declined by the mid-19th century as they started to lose revenues to the rail and canal transport. Some attempt was made during the 1870s and 1880s to improve the nation’s roads, but central government took a very passive role in their development, eventually passing road maintenance responsibility to county councils in 1888.

A fact file compiled by the RAC Foundation has found:

The motor vehicle was not a legally recognised mode of transport until 1896

  • By 1910 140,000 cars were travelling on UK roads making driving a tax option for the Treasury
  • A National Road Board was set up in 1910 and run for nine years, putting aside taxes for road improvements
  • The Ministry of Transport (MoT) replaced the board in 1919
  • Economic difficulties in the period after the Great War and the second world war itself created five false starts to the MoT’s road programme
  • Thirty-eight years after the MoT was founded, the first motorway was built in 1957, one hundred years after turnpikes had ceased to exist
  • Despite a poor road development programme the MoT developed many of the rules and regulations governing road use today.

Sheila Rainger, Acting Director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Without the Romans, the turnpike system and the Ministry of Transport’s on-off road building programme the UK’s roads would be in an even worse state than they are today.

“Badly planned, poorly configured, piecemeal road building programmes should be a feature of our country’s past. Road user charging could be part of the future solution, but recent debate has shown this idea to be less popular than turnpikes.

“To avoid roads to ruin we need to learn from these mistakes, and develop stronger planning frameworks and more powerful delivery organisations with a clear duty to develop and manage the strategic road network. This will ensure we have a transport infrastructure fit for the 21st century.”



“What Went Wrong? British Highway Development before the Motorways” is the first background paper in a series from the Foundation, which explores motoring issues in relation to the Foundation’s ‘Roads and Reality’ report (November, 2007).