Fifty years ago, on 1 November 1973, a public inquiry opened into the proposed expansion of the Archway Road. It was expected to be a routine affair, but things didn’t pan out quite that way.
The Archway Road is part of the A1 trunk route, which runs from the City of London through Islington, Haringey and Barnet heading north to York, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and on to Edinburgh. It was one of the major routes linking the old industrial and business areas of central London with the Midlands and the North and helped funnel traffic down to the ports of the south-east. From the 1950s onwards it became heavily congested throughout the day. The build-up of traffic worsened local air quality, caused frustration and delay, and created great difficulty for pedestrians crossing the road.
In 1962, the Department for Transport (DfT) included in its trunk road programme proposals to improve Archway Road. The government forecast that widening it would enable it to carry more than 180,000 cars a day – up from 30,000. Hornsey Borough Council and its successor, Haringey Council, were appointed as agents for the preparation of a scheme for a dual three-lane road – in effect a motorway.
The plans were well advanced when, in 1967, Haringey suggested that the lanes could be separated by using the abandoned Edgware-Finsbury Park railway line. After discussions with the council, it was agreed that in view of the difficult traffic and environmental problems to be solved, both civil engineering and planning consultants should be appointed to prepare a scheme acceptable to Haringey and the DfT. This was the first trunk road scheme in London for which planning specialists were made partners in its design.
The public inquiry continued until 21 January 1974. This first inquiry It seems to have run smoothly, with little public attention. The inspector reported in 1974 in favour of a dual two-lane road, as desired by the Greater London Council (GLC), but with provision for future widening to a dual-three lane. However, there were problems with the interchange with Shepherd’s Hill and a pub, The Woodman, was stranded on an island with no access to either Highgate Village or Muswell Hill. These reservations made it necessary to hold a further inquiry.
This time round the public was alive to the issue and, as part of the burgeoning Homes Before Roads protest movement, local people began to organise themselves to better challenge the proposed scheme. There was a growing recognition that more roads meant more traffic, more congestion and more pollution and that 120 of the fine early 20th Century homes and shops that lined the route would be demolished. In anticipation of this, the DfT had been quietly buying up property and letting it to housing associations. A new flyover was envisaged at Shepherd’s Hill. For the new road to cross the old railway land between Muswell Hill Road and Aylmer Road would necessitate destroying part of Highgate Wood.
The second inquiry began on 15 September 1976. On the first day, about 1,000 people turned up to fight the scheme. “The objectors came bringing their children and their lunch, prepared to camp out to see off those who wished to destroy our very pleasant part of London,” according to a first hand account.
The Archway Improvement Association, its name a tongue-in-cheek play on what the government called the Archway Road Improvement scheme, was set up. It helped organise Residents’ Committees to ensure consistently high levels of turnout and a daily news sheet was produced to update the protestors. A rota of objectors and potential speakers was drawn up. The list ran into the thousands.
The inspector found it difficult to make progress because of filibustering by certain objectors and because proceedings would at times get rowdy. After a series of adjournments, he became ill, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown, and on 1 October the inquiry had to be abandoned . No progress had been made on investigating the substance of the objections.
A thrd inquiry started on 19 April, 1977 under a different inspector, who decided to limit access to the hall to only the objector due to speak. In protest at this, one session saw a mass walk-in by protesters. The inspector fled though an open window and down the fire escape. After the start, the GLC and Haringey changed their views – the GLC to full support for the proposals as a whole and Haringey to outright opposition. Local opponents ramped up their efforts: a new body, Stop the Archway Motorway Plan’ was set up; there were demos, marches, radio phone-ins, letters to MPs and the newspapers; the filibustering ground on.
The inspector managed to keep things going until 12 October, but there were only 28 working sessions during this period, 18 of them devoted to arguments about legality and procedures. Only during the last 10 sessions was a start made on examining one of the consulting engineer witnesses. There were claims that the inspector was harassed and officials and witnesses supporting the Department’s proposals intimidated and abused. The third inquiry was abandoned on 21 March 1978, with the government quoting as a prime reason a campaign of “organised disruption”.
Up to this point, the total cost of the Improvement Plan was estimated at £815,000 (£6.5 million at today’s prices). That figure included property acquisition costs of about £380,000, consultants’ costs amounting to £250,000 and inquiry costs of £135,000. Despite the apparent decision to abandon the scheme, the 1978 White Paper Policy for Roads, published after the abandonment of the inquiry, stated that the improvement to the Archway Road was scheduled to start in 1981–83, and a further sum of £5.2 million set aside for that purpose. The anxiety and uncertainty of local people was set to drag on.
The DfT and the GLC reviewed the scheme again and reported back to the Secretary of State in September, 1980. New draft orders for a scheme were published that month and in December 1982. In 1983, following three preliminary meetings, a fourth inquiry, led by Air Marshall Sir Michael Giddings, opened in January 1984. But with a change of administration at the GLC following Labour’s victory in 1981, local and London government were now aligned against the expansion proposals. The GLC was now clear that road building was not the answer to London’s traffic problems. An integrated transport programme of investment in public transport, traffic restraint and support for pedestrians and cyclists was the preferred way forward.
Sir Michael soon felt the heat of the organised opposition. He was to complain bitterly about his treatment by the objectors – harassment, night-time phone calls, trespassers in his garden, packets of dubious content put through his letterbox. His wife was seriously ill at the time and he felt he had to resign. And so this inquiry, too, was abandoned. However, the government, in the person of transport minister Lynda Chalker, insisted in May 1984 that “if London is to thrive, commerce and industry require, and will continue to require, suitable roads into London and for cross-London movement inside the M25 ring.” She said a further inquiry would take place..
In that same year the DfT commissioned four London Assessment Studies: East London (ELAS), West London (WLAS), South Circular (SCAS) and South London (SLAS). They were effectively road corridor studies. Each of the four study areas was strongly related to trunk roads, often centred around a previous road construction proposal or route. This seemed to breathe new life into the Archway Road Improvement plan. But more public meetings followed and opponents redoubled their efforts, particularly as the completion of the M25 ring road had eased pressure on the Archway Road. By 1986 traffic stood at around 30,000 a day, little changed since the 1960s.
In March 1990, Cecil Parkinson, the then Secretary of State for Transport, abandoned the major road schemes the studies had recommended. Their likely cost and the levels of expected public opposition made progressing new road schemes unworkable. Instead, Parkinson identified a number of modest improvements for further study and announced that the DfT would go ahead with a priority route system – the red routes as they became – to try to speed up the flow of traffic instead. Proposals for the Archway Road Motorway had, after 15 years of protest, finally been laid to rest.
Richard Derecki is an economist and governance expert who has worked for the 10 Downing Street strategy unit and the Greater London Authority. Twitter: Follow Richard and follow On London. On London and its writers need your backing. Give £5 a month or £50 a year and receive in return the weekly newsletter On London Extra and (at no additional charge) invitations to events featuring eminent Londoners. Pay using any of the “donate” buttons on the site, by becoming a paid subscriber to publisher and editor Dave Hill’s personal Substack, or directly into the company bank account. Email email@example.com for details. Thanks.