ROADS, AND THOSE IN TRING.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ENGLISH ROADS:
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY.
There were only 8,000 cars in the whole of Britain at the start of
the 20th century.
By the end of the century, the car population had soared to 21 million.
MOTOR TRAFFIC AND ROAD IMPROVEMENT
The motor vehicle: road dust and safety issues
The first decade of the new century was marked by a growing number of
motor vehicles. They were being driven on macadamised highways,
the gravelly surfaces of which were formed from imperfectly consolidated
broken stone. While ideal for horses’ hooves, which could find a
firm foothold in both dry and wet conditions, this form of unsealed surface
caused faster moving motor vehicles to throw up clouds of dust in dry
weather, while in wet weather, horse dropping mixed with urine and rain formed
mud, which was scattered by motor traffic. Towns usually opted for
roads surfaced with stone sets or cobbles. These were hard wearing
and did not pose the dust problem, but they were slippery in wet
weather, a problem made worse by the liberal deposits of horse manure
and urine piled upon them. Horses often came to grief, and
steam and motor powered vehicles could all too easily slide off the side
of the road.
Compacting stone sets ― note the foreman
Illustrated London News, 1851.
In an age that had yet to come to terms with the internal combustion
engine, other road safety issues arose, not least among which were
accidents resulting from the higher speeds now being attained, and the
noise from this new form of traffic causing horses — still the
predominant form of traction — to panic.
The solution to the problems of dust and mud was solved in 1902 by Edgar
Hooley, County Surveyor for Nottinghamshire. Hooley patented an
all-weather road surfacing material made from mixing tar with ironstone
slag, which he called ‘tarmac’. When laid, tarmac acted as a
sealant, suppressing both dust and loose matter, but a considerable
number of years were to elapse before most roads had been ‘tarmacadamised’.
To some extent road safety issues were addressed by the 1903 Motor
Car Act.  This introduced the crime of
reckless driving and imposed penalties. Road vehicles were to be
registered and licensed, with number plates showing their registration
numbers, and a national speed limit of 20 mph was imposed with local
limits imposed by county councils as necessary. Vehicle drivers
had also to be licensed, the minimum qualifying age being 17 years, but
a compulsory driving test was not introduced until 1934 with the passage
of that year’s Road Traffic Act.
An extract from the 1935 edition of the
Funding road improvements
The perennial question now arose of ways and means; how were the funds
to be raised to improve roads to meet the new demands of motor traffic?
It was generally agreed that road users should bear at least a portion
of the cost, but no one wanted to return to toll-gates as a means of
raising revenue. The solution adopted by the Chancellor, David
Lloyd-George, was, first, to introduce a graduated tax on cars,
commencing at £2. 2s for a 6½ h.p. engine rising to £32 for an engine in
the range 40 to 60 h.p; second, to add 3d. per gallon duty on petrol.
The proceeds, expected to be £1M annually, were to be paid into a ‘Road
Improvement Fund’, which was to be administered by a newly created ‘Road
Board’. The Board’s role was not to administer road maintenance,
this task being in the hands of local authorities, but to use the Fund
to subsidise new road construction projects, to improve existing roads,
and to put in place measures to suppress road dust. 
Although the Road Improvement Fund was ring-fenced and controlled by the
Road Board, any grants made from it had first to be sanctioned by the
Treasury. The Treasury has long believed that all forms of
government revenue should be paid into a common pot, the Consolidated
Fund, from which ministries would compete for funding; to them, the existence
of a ring-fenced fund was anathema. Perhaps for that reason, the Road
Board did not, during its short existence, bring about any great improvements
in the national road network. It initiated a mere handful of road
schemes — these being the Great West Road, a new road between Leicester
and Newark (along the Fosse Way), and the Croydon Bypass — with over 90%
of its grants being for improvements in road surfacing to
The Road Fund
Under the 1920 Roads Act, the Road Improvement Fund’s assets were
transferred to a ‘Road Fund’ to be administered by the newly created
‘Ministry of Transport’, while that year’s Finance Act removed the duty
on imported motor spirit but introduced increased duties on motor
vehicles. Private cars were to be taxed on cylinder bore,
passenger vehicles on seating capacity, and other commercial vehicles on
High unemployment after the end of World War I led the government to
provide county councils with grants for road improvements, particularly
where labour was to be recruited from the most affected areas.
There were two unemployment relief programmes, the first from 1920 to
1925 and the second from 1929 to 1930. Grants were limited to
trunk roads and bridges, with the money coming from the Road Fund.
By 1935, some 500 miles of bypasses had been built, including the Derby
Ring Road and the Oxford Northern Bypass, together with the UK’s first
inter-urban highway, the East Lancashire Road (A580, Liverpool to
Salford), constructed between 1929 and 1934 at a cost £8
During the 1920s and 30s, the ring fence around the Road Fund was
gradually removed. Justified by one excuse or another,
sums were transferred from the Road Fund into the Consolidated Fund,
until, following the 1936 Finance Act, the proceeds from road vehicle
duties were paid directly into the Consolidated Fund together with other
taxes. Although not wound up until 1955, the
Road Fund now ceased to exist in practical terms, road transport then
becoming a convenient
source of tax revenues that were easily collectable, and relatively
inelastic and predictable. That situation remained until July
2015, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his budget speech that taxes paid
on cars will, from 2020-21, by paid into a new Road Fund, the proceeds of which would
be used to pay for road improvement.
STATE CONTROL AND MODERN ROADS
The Ministry of Transport
World War I. had presented significant problems of transport
co-ordination and this, together with the increasing role of the State,
led in 1919 to the disbanding of the Road Board and the creation of the
Ministry of Transport. 
The new ministry took over all central government roles in respect of
roads, bridges and the traffic thereon. It introduced a system of
grants for local authorities to spend on the upkeep and development of
their roads, changed the road taxation system and, among other
initiatives . . . .
• carried out the
first national road traffic census in 1922;
Traffic Commissioners to control licensing and regulation of
heavy goods vehicle, bus and coach operators, and the
registration of local bus services. Road Traffic Act 1930 (20 &
21 Geo. 5, c. 43);
• made compulsory
third party motor insurance (1930);
• introduced the
Highway Code (1931, enlarged in 1934);
• set up the Road
Research Laboratory to investigate matters of road construction,
design and safety (1933);
• introduced a
national system of road signage (Maybury Report, 1933);
guidance and standards for a range of highway design and
management topics (including street lighting, traffic signals
and road safety);
• developed a
national system of speed limits. The Road Traffic Act 1934 (24 &
25 Geo. 5, c. 50) introduced a speed limit of 30 mph in built-up
areas for cars and motorcycles (speedometers were not made
compulsory for new cars until 1937);
compulsory driving tests (Road Traffic Act 1934);
• took direct control
of our core road network (centrally managed for the first time
since the Roman occupation) through the Trunk Roads Act 1936 (1
Edw. 8. & 1 Geo. 6, c. 5). This Act placed 4,505 miles of main
roads outside large towns under the control of the Ministry of
Transport, and laid out a blueprint for national roads
By the mid 1930s the financial crisis of the Depression years was mostly
over. The Ministry of Transport drew up a new five year programme
(1935-1940) for schemes costing £73m, with grants being made to local
highway authorities of between 33% and 85%, depending on the type of
road involved. While some of these schemes were built, the programme was
curtailed by the onset of World War II.
Despite the spate of spending on unemployment relief programmes, by the
UK’s road infrastructure lagged far behind that of its economic rivals.
By 1939, Germany, Italy and the United States each had extensive
motorway networks (i.e. networks of fast roads reserved for motor vehicles).
Italy led the way with the opening the Milano-Laghi dual highway (Milan
to Varese) between 1924 and 1926. Almost 3,000 miles
of autobahn had been completed in Germany by 1939, and a further 1,000 miles was
under construction, a total exceeding that of the UK’s network 60 years
In Britain, some interest was shown in the development of trunk
routes as motorways. In 1936 the Institution of Highway Engineers
published a plan for a motorway network of some 2,800 miles. This
was followed two years later by a plan put forward by the County
Surveyors’ Society for 1,000 miles of motorway running between London
and Glasgow; London and Newcastle; London and Swansea; London and
Southampton/Portsmouth; Manchester and Hull; Penrith and Scotch Corner;
and Sheffield and Bristol. But war intervened before anything
further could be done.
Even before the War ended, the Ministry of Transport realised that it
would not be long before the country needed motorways, and soon after
the cessation of hostilities, a delegation of road engineers was sent to
Germany to study German practice in building their autobahns.
Legislation was passed in 1949 authorising the construction of ‘special
roads’ — later to be known as ‘motorways’ — to be restricted to specific
types of vehicles, but the continuation of wartime austerity into the post
war years prevented the commencement of motorway building. It was
not until 1955 that orders to build the first two ‘special road schemes’
were made under the 1949 Act, these being the Preston and Lancaster
bypasses, which opened in 1958 and 1960 respectively, later forming
sections of the M6 (finally completed in December 2008 with the opening
of the Cumberland Gap). In 1959, the first major inter-urban
motorway to be opened in Britain was the 74-mile section of the M1
between Junction 5 (Watford) and Junction 18 (Crick/Rugby).
Road administration in England today
The Department for Transport (formerly the Ministry of Transport) is now
the government department responsible for the English transport network
(Transport Scotland manages roads in Scotland and the Welsh Assembly
manages roads in Wales). Among the Department’s roles is to plan
and invest in transport infrastructure, including roads.
The Department is supported by 20 agencies and public bodies, among
which is the Highways Agency, the agency responsible for managing the
core road network, i.e. major motorways and trunk roads of
approximately 4,300 miles in length, routes that account for 34% of all
road travel and 67% of lorry freight travel — approximately four million
vehicles use the network every day. The Agency is also responsible
for the maintenance of 9,000 bridges, 9,000 other structures and 34,000
drainage assets along the network.
Local authorities maintain minor roads, and while the most important
elements of the network are a central government responsibility, the
Highways Agency may ask local authorities to undertake road repairs for
them on an agency basis.
Some important Acts of Parliament relating to roads and their use are
listed in the Appendix.
SOME IMPORTANT ACTS OF PARLIAMENT
RELATING TO ROADS AND ROAD USE
The Highways Act 1555 (2 & 3 Ph. & Mary c.8): required parishes
to maintain roads in their area, appoint surveyors and introduced the
obligation of statute labour.
Ordinance for the better amending and keeping in repair the Common
Highways within the Nation 1654: provided parishes with powers to levy
rates on landowners in their area for the upkeep of public highways.
Repair of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Highway Act
1663 (15 Car. II. c.1): reputedly the first Turnpike Act.
The General Turnpike Act 1773 (13 Geo 3 c.84): incorporated into
one law the provisions applicable to all turnpike roads, leaving only
the special provisions applicable to a particular road to be inserted
into its Act. The Act also placed the appointed trustees under the
direction of the county justices. However, the Act did nothing to
remedy the weaknesses of the system. It made no requirement for
trust accounts to be audited on both a financial and a value-for-money
basis, thus leaving some trusts ineffective. Indeed, many became
overwhelmed by the interest due on the mortgages they had raised to the
extent that, by the early 1800s, many were earning only enough revenue
to service interest payments, leaving nothing for road maintenance.
This, and other similar Acts, made no requirements for trusts along the
course of long-distance routes to consolidate ― on average, each trust
had control of 20 to 30 miles of road.
Highway Act 1835 (5 & 6 Will 4 c.50): placed a duty on parish surveyors to maintain
roads in the parish and pay from a rate levied on local landowners. The
Act abolished statute labour in favour of highway rates and encouraged
commercial stationers to produce pro-forma highway account books and
rate books. It
also introduced rules of conduct, including keeping to left when
passing, and fines for breaching these.
Locomotive Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict c.70): first regulated the weights (12 tons maximum)
and speeds of mechanised road vehicles. Speeds were limited to 5mph in
town and 10 mph in the country.
Locomotives Act 1865 (28 & 29 Vict c.83): sometimes know as the ‘Red Flag Act’ this
reduced speed limits to 2 mph in town and 4 mph in the country and
mechanised vehicles had to be preceded by a person carrying a red flag.
Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878 (41 & 42 Vict c.77): transferred the
responsibility for roads maintenance, along with rate levy rights, from
parishes to districts.
Highways Rate Assessment and Expenditure Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict c.27): introduced
central government grants towards roads expenditure.
The Local Government Act 1888 (51 & 52 Vict c.41): established county councils and county
borough councils in England and Wales and made them responsible for the
repair of county roads and bridges, along with rating powers; and any
other roads they deemed to be ‘main’.
Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 (59 & 60 Vict c.36): introduced classification of
mechanical road vehicles defining a class of ‘light locomotives’ and
increased speed limits to 12 mph. Required vehicles to carry
lights (between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise) and
be provided with an audible alarm, such as a bell. The speed limit was
raised from 4 mph to 14 mph.
The Motor Car Act 1903 (3 Edw.7, c. 36): introduced the registration of motor vehicles,
the licensing of drivers and the offence of reckless driving. The Act
raised the speed limit to 20 mph and introduced regulations regarding
the minimum braking ability of vehicles.
The Development and Roads Improvement Funds Act 1909
7. c. 47): introduced a horsepower and a (3d) petrol tax, the
net proceeds of which were paid into the Road Improvement Fund, later
known as the Road Fund, which was managed by the Road Board created by
the Act. The Road Board did not undertake construction or maintenance of
roads, but controlled grants to local authorities to maintain them. It
was stated that the Treasury would not gain from the new duties and that
all the revenue raised would be spent on the roads ― this ideal was
Ministry of Transport Act 1919 (10 Geo. 5 c.50): created the Ministry of Transport
and abolished to Road Board.
Finance Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. 5 c. 18): provided for grants to local authorities for the
upkeep and improvement of their roads.
Roads Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. 5 c.72): provided for grants to local authorities for the
upkeep and improvement of their roads.
Road Traffic Act 1930 (20 & 21 Geo. 5 c.43): removed all speed
limits for motor cars, but introduced the 30 mph speed limit for buses
and coaches. It introduced a highway
code and compulsory third party motor insurance. On the licensing of
drivers, it including provisional licences and driving tests for
The Road Traffic Act 1934 (24 & 25 Geo. 5. c. 50): reintroduced a
speed limit for cars of 30 mph in built-up areas and made the driving
test compulsory for all new drivers. The Belisha beacon (named after the
Transport Minister) was introduced to clearly identify pedestrian
Finance Act 1936 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c.34): abolished the special arrangement for motor taxes
which were thenceforth to be paid into the consolidated fund.
Trunk Roads Act 1936 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c.5): gave the Ministry of Transport direct
responsibility for a network of trunk roads (initially 4,460 miles in
length) in the United Kingdom but excluding Northern Ireland. Thirty
major roads were classed as trunk roads and the minister of transport
took direct control of them and the bridges across them.
Trunk Road Act 1946 (9 & 10 Geo. 6. c. 30): extended the trunk road
Transport Act 1947 (10 &
11 Geo. 6. c. 49): nationalised the railways, long-distance road
haulage and various other types of transport and ancillary activities
and created the British Transport Commission to oversee their
Special Roads Act 1949 (12 & 13 Geo. 6. c.32.): allowed the construction of roads
restricted to specific types of vehicles and restricted access by the
utilities ― in practice Motorways.
1. Motor Car Act, 1903 (3 Edward VII. c. 36).
2. Development and Road Improvement Funds Act 1909 (9 Edward VII, c.
47). Section 8 (5) of Part II of the Act reads:
“For the purposes of
this Part of this Act the expression ‘improvement of roads’ includes the
widening of any road, the cutting off the corners of any road where land
is required to be purchased for that purpose, the levelling of roads,
the treatment of a road for mitigating the nuisance of dust, and the
doing of any other work in respect of roads beyond ordinary repairs
essential to placing a road in a proper state of repair; and the
expression ‘roads’ includes bridges, viaducts, and subways.”
3. Ministry of Transport Act 1919 (9 & 10 Geo. 5, c. 50).