Motorway Blight

In the 1960s, a new motorway was being built to circle London. As a start, Westway was being built from White City to Marylebone. Other stretches would follow. Four special road studies had been carried out covering the whole of London and the proposals published. There would be three ring roads, of which only the A25 was finally built and that not in the place originally planned. The innermost ring would run through Finchley Road, Dalston, Bow, the Isle of Dogs, across the Thames to Denmark Hill and Brixton and so back through West Kensington and Swiss Cottage. This sounds simple in retrospect, but at the time, the turmoil seemed never ending. The lives of thousands of people were disrupted for years, as huge areas were blighted.

A new six-lane motorway was to run down East Heath Road, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, to an intersection at the bottom of Keat’s Grove, so that people going to the traditional Hampstead Heath fair on bank holidays, would have woven their way through the piers of a huge overhead road. From there the road was to go to the podium of the new Royal Free Hospital at South End Green, where it would meet a massive new road from Swiss Cottage and Belsize Park. From there the road would go through the Royal Free Hospital grounds to Lismore Circus.

The road was to start to climb at St Martin’s Church, in Savernake Road, a listed building, and then become elevated above the surrounding houses to the south and east. It would have swept away some of Constantine and Savernake Roads and continued over the top of the North London Railway to Camden Town. At Camden Town there would have been an enormous three-level interchange at a roundabout linked to a Camden Town bypass. There it would cross the east - west route from the White City and Edgware Road, and continue south over the railway yards at St Pancras and King’s Cross, before rejoining the North London Railway at Barnsbury.


Ringway 1

Westway was already a ‘high speed link between two traffic lights’, one at White City and the next at Edgware Road. It was pouring traffic into Marylebone Road at an uncontrollable rate. Now it would continue straight on from Edgware Road, along Marylebone Road and Hampstead Road, sweep into a cutting behind Mornington Crescent; tunnel under Delancey Street and along Oval Road. From there, the road would travel above the Regent’s Canal to meet the roundabout near Camden Road Station.

Because there were several suggested routes and the final one would not be chosen until after a public inquiry, much more land was set aside than would finally be used. Any inquiry would take at least two years, so a pall of blight settled over the area.

For the Planners the timing could not have been worse. Westway had just opened to a barrage of complaints. Residents’ lives had been disrupted by compulsory purchase of properties, continual building and traffic diversions over years and the sight of raw cut-off terrace-ends where the motorway had sliced through. Suddenly, when the work was apparently finished, they found themselves in the never-ending roar of traffic. The New Westway had become the fashionable race track for everyone to try out their cars. The road was attracting more and more vehicles and people’s houses were not even sound-proofed. There were demonstration marches and letters in the papers daily. In the middle of this furore, the planners announced the next stretch.


The Planners' Model, looking east.

View looking east of the motorway sweeping in from the left over the North London Railway (hidden) as it passes Castlehaven Estate (left centre). The interchange with Camden Town Bypass is at the bottom.

The Threat to Camden

This map shows, better than any words, just what kind of mess the proposed Ringway One and the Camden by-pass will make of the heart of Camden Town. It is to stop this threat that the Camden Motorway Action Group (as part of the London Motorway Action Group) appeals for your support in fighting our case at the forthcoming Public Inquiry.

Camden Town Motorway Action Group

People of Camden
your own Support
Motorway Action Group

Thursday 3rd February 1972 at 7 p.m.
At Church House, Dean’s Yard, Westminster

First day of the evidence by C.T.M.A.G.

Immediately, there were more protests. Leslie Ginsberg, until recently head of the Post Graduate Planning Department of the Architects Association and soon to become Planning Adviser to the Civic Trust, prepared a case against it. He said that the North Cross Route was not justified and it should not be built until the Greater London Council had produced an integrated traffic study concerned not just with getting cars and freight fast around London, but with public transport as well. The road by itself was idiotic. It would create traffic problems rather than solving them and would devastate the urban fabric immediately along the route.
 
Leslie Ginsberg said that the road would be impressive, flying and sweeping through the landscape, but it would completely disrupt the local communities and local links. It would be a five-mile barrier wall and, once built, it could not be altered. During the construction period communities would be destroyed as people moved to avoid the confusion and firms re-located, or went bankrupt. 

An Echo of London, 1860-1880

The same population movement had happened to the City of London in the 1860s, when the main line railway stations, the Embankment, new roads, and sewers were being built. The City of London, which had been full of people, was suddenly emptied as everyone fled to the outskirts.1 This was the great growth period of, for example, Finsbury Park, Kentish Town and Clapham.

This emptying of an old centre is precisely what happened to Camden Town a century later, in the 1960s, even though the proposed road was not actually built. The motorway blight, combined with the movement of Industry away to the New Towns, ushered in a period of decay. There was no work. Industry had taken many of the young skilled workers and their families far away. Small businesses collapsed. Shops had no customers. No grants were available for public works, or for house repairs. There seemed no prospect of new industry arriving, no new development was in sight, and there was no hope. In these condition Camden Town dispared.


Westway under construction at the White City.
Camden Town too could have looked like this


Footnote

  1. The Lost Building World of the 1860s, by John Summerson, Thames & Hudson, 1973.

Gilbeys Desert Camden Town
and Move to Harlow

Decay in the Sixties