Complex, Crucial, Controversial:
The Charing Cross Section
M8 Motorway | Inner Ring Road
Glasgow’s Inner Ring Road was proposed as an urban motorway around the city centre. Originally mooted Robert Bruce’s “First Planning Report” of 1945, formal proposals were not outlined until the "Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road" was produced by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick on behalf of Glasgow Corporation in 1962.
The west flank of the ring road stretched from Great Western Road, through Charing Cross and over a new bridge to Tradeston. Ultimately the west and north flanks were the only two parts of the ring road that were completed and today they form the M8, the west flank being the section between junctions 17 and 20.
Like the north flank, the west flank was split in to two contracts. These were Charing Cross at the north end of the corridor and the Kingston Bridge and Approaches at the south.
W.A Fairhurst & Partners had been appointed to develop a design for the Kingston Bridge in 1962 and their commission was extended to include the Charing Cross section. Holford & Associates were appointed as Consulting Architects, a role they held for all the city’s new road projects of the time.
Planning and Construction
The main features of the route had already been laid out in Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick’s report and, given the steep rising ground of Garnethill and the need to conserve the Park Circus area, there was limited scope for the motorway to be constructed in any other place. In fact, the final route is remarkably similar to that suggested in 1945.
John Cullen, a key part of the Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick’s Inner Ring Road team, described this section of the ring road as being the “most technically challenging” of all the contracts. Multiple local routes converge on the Charing Cross area and linking these to the motorway, as well as the construction of new parallel distributor roads, posed a particular engineering conundrum.
Unlike the other ring road contracts, which formed part of planning applications for the Comprehensive Development Areas, the Charing Cross section was consented using traditional roads powers including Compulsory Purchase Orders.
Junction of Sauchiehall Street & Woodside Crescent, October 1964. It was taken prior to the start of demolition work for the Inner Ring Road. The photo was taken by Holford & Associates as part of surveys of the city before and after construction of the M8 motorway.
WA Fairhurst & Partners was responsible for the design and procurement of this contract with preparatory works carried out throughout the late 1960s. The construction contract was let to Whatlings (Civil Engineering) Ltd with work commencing on 1st August 1969. Demolition began during 1966 and included the Elders Furniture Showrooms, Charing Cross station, the St Andrews Ambulance building and, most controversially of all, the Grand Hotel at Charing Cross.
WA Fairhurst & Partners was responsible for the design and procurement of this contract with preparatory works carried out throughout the late 1960s. The construction contract was let to Whatlings (Civil Engineering) Ltd with work commencing on 1st August 1969. Demolition began during 1966 and included the Elders Furniture Showrooms, Charing Cross station, the St Andrews Ambulance building. and, most controversially of all, the Grand Hotel at Charing Cross.
That controversy notwithstanding, the designers had actually gone to considerable lengths to reduce the visual impact of the works. Holford's proposed replacing the elevated viaduct initially proposed for this section (which avoided costly utility diversions) with an underpass that limited the motorway’s visual impact on Charing Cross.
St George's Cross (now Junction 17) marks the northern extent of the west flank. Located in the north west corner of the Inner Ring Road, the interchange is compact, requiring a complex arrangement of overbridges, walkways, retaining walls and sign gantries.
Construction of the Inner Ring Road, above St. George's Road (1970). St. George's Cross marked the boundary between the Woodside & Charing Cross section construction contracts.
The motorway passes through Charing Cross in a 150m long underpass. This extensive structure, which also carries the fairly complex local road system, cost £500,000 (£7 million in 2018) and has become one of the most recognisable parts of the motorway system. Junctions 17 and 18 are amongst the busiest of the M8 Inner Ring Road.
Close attention was paid to providing a high-quality aesthetic in the underpass. The walls were decorated with white mosaic tiles, the ceiling painted blue and cornice mounting light fittings provide permanent illumination. Internally illuminated signage was originally located above each portal but these were changed to reflective signs some years ago.
Between Sauchiehall Street and Anderston the motorway is in a cutting nicknamed “The Canyon”, this was also intended to reduce the visual impact of the road. The southern limits of the contract were alongside the Anderston slip roads.
Prior to reaching this point the motorway passes beneath the Charing Cross Podium, and bridges and Bath Street and St. Vincent Street. The latter was actually part of the Kingston Bridge contract and was operational before the start of work on the Charing Cross contract.
The Charing Cross podium was constructed at the same time as the motorway and was always intended to form part of a building. Holford’s suggested a shopping and leisure complex with elevated walkways as a way of ‘continuing’ Sauchiehall Street across the motorway but interest was limited and thirty years passed before the Tay House office complex was built on the site. John Cullen recalled that the Corporation had been advised to complete the development themselves but they ignored this, anticipating that private developers would be lining up to pitch their ideas!
Construction of the road created many challenges for the engineers as local roads and walkways had to be kept open throughout the work. Early in the planning stages it was decided that the motorway should be constructed in a cutting to preserve the amenity of the area.
In front of the Mitchell Library, the motorway passes over the North Clyde railway line resulting in a visible hump in the road that can still be seen at this location. Charing Cross railway station was moved to its existing location, with an office development and car park on the same site.
The retaining walls in the canyon are formed of steel sheet piles held in place with rock anchors. In an unusual and interesting technique, concrete was cast around the piles which were then clad with precast aggregate finished panels to provide an aesthetically pleasing result. The aggregate used was referred to as “walley blue flint”.
On completion the section had two overhead sign gantries, though this was increased to four during the 1980s. These gantries are unusual in that their left hand side rests on top of the retaining walls rather than a steel support. In the 1990s, the gantries in front of the Mitchell Library became the first to be provided with retroreflective sign sheeting. Prior to this, the sign faces were intelligible at night if the internal illumination failed.
The Charing Cross section of the M8 was opened on the 4th of February 1972—the final section of the ring road to do so. There was now a continuous high-speed route between Townhead and Tradeston that removed significant traffic from the city streets and paved the way for wider connections via the Monkland and Renfrew Motorways.
Footage of the opening ceremony, attended by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr Gordon Campbell, can be seen below. A number of protestors opposed to the construction of the East Flank of the Inner Ring Road are also in attendance.
The final cost of the scheme was £6 million (£96 million at 2018 prices). The equivalent of £25 million was spent on land and property acquisition and service diversions.
The motorway passes below Charing Cross and Sauchiehall Street in a 150m long underpass. This was constructed on the recommendation of Holford's who believed it would reduce the impact of the motorway its surroundings.
Aside from routine maintenance, the Charing Cross section remains largely as built. The installation of new barrier systems and modern lighting masts are some of the few visible changes, but the coming years are likely to bring more intensive mid-life refurbishment and upgrades (particularly to the underpass and retaining walls).
A number of high-profile proposals have been made to improve the public and visual amenity of “The Canyon” area, the most significant of which is to cover a further section of the motorway in front of the Mitchell Library. There are very different public realm priorities today, but the technical challenges that led to this idea’s rejection in the 1960s remain the same: the complexity of accommodating the covering, the railway, North Street, Newton Street and the motorway in an incredibly confined horizontal and vertical space.
Glasgow City Council is also considering the introduction of cycleways and other active travel projects to improve links between the city centre and West End that will require alterations to the layout of the local road system around the Sauchiehall Street and Woodlands Road areas.
Charing Cross footbridge continues to offer stunning views of the M8 and the north of the city, fifty years after its completion. The area around the motorway is likely to be considerably redeveloped throughout the 2020s.
Charing Cross: A Retrospective
The consulting architects were particularly aware of the visual impact of the Inner Ring Road at Charing Cross and insisted the road should be constructed and finished to the highest possible standard. Their efforts are reflected in the extraordinarily expensive decision to reject a simple elevated viaduct in favour of cuttings and tunnels that protected the cityscape and prevented community severance; the extensive planting and landscaping and the use of high-quality finishes for retaining walls and other parts of the roadway. The result is an urban motorway with a more pleasing aesthetic than its equivalent in cities like Birmingham and Leeds.
However, the experience of building the Charing Cross section could be a textbook illustration of the reasons that urban motorways began to fall out of favour. The complexity of designing such roads, the extraordinary cost and disruption of building them and the inability of extensive and expensive mitigation works to fully ameliorate the negative impact on people and neighbourhoods cannot be ignored.
Many new developments were completed soon after the motorway including the Elmbank Tower & the headquarters of Strathclyde Regional Council. An empty Charing Cross podium can be seen parallel to Sauchiehall Street.
The truth is that the Charing Cross section may have escaped significant criticism during the planning stages, but the experience of the construction phase irretrievably damaged public support for the entire Inner Ring Road. The sheer scale of the disruption involved in clearing the site and then the radical change in the character of this part of the city divides opinion to this day.
Deciding not to complete the Inner Ring Road was not without costs. Congestion, the chief complaint most people levy against today’s M8, is largely a consequence of the constrained two-lane section at Charing Cross not being designed to carry cross-city traffic—the designers had intended the East and South flanks and a second motorway bridge across the Clyde for that.
In many ways, the challenges faced by the mid-century Corporation are not unlike those faced by the Council today. Both authorities knew they needed to facilitate new ways of moving around the city and that convenient links, especially to the city centre, are essential. Excessive use of motor vehicles was also a concern even in the 1960s, with measures to discourage city traffic included in the Inner Ring Road plans. Some of these ideas, like multi-storey car parks at the edge of the city centre, near junctions with the M8 (like the one at Charing Cross, which also includes a railway station) were innovative. Half-century later, as a Low-Emission Zone is introduced in Glasgow, they seem more relevant than ever.
The Charing Cross section of the Inner Ring Road remains controversial. The demolition of many old buildings divided opinion, and despite the efforts of the engineers to mitigate the effects of the motorway, many say it negatively impacted upon the local community.
Yes, several fine buildings were lost in the name of progress—they were in many cities in that era. No, nobody would consider driving a motorway through Charing Cross today. The project was a product of its era.
The planners of the day were acting with pride and optimism, taking on an extraordinarily difficult task they believed was necessary to prepare their home for the future. Locals like John Cullen, who grew up near St. Georges Cross and worked as an engineer for Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick on the Inner Ring Road, were determined to leave something better for their children than they themselves had.
The foresight and ambition of these people left a legacy we often take for granted: some of the shortest cross-city journey times in the UK, the pedestrianisation of Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyll Street and traffic levels in the city centre that remain considerably lower than before the motorway was built.
Maybe it’s time we showed the M8 a little love?
From the Archive
This article was first published in December 2020.