From Concept to Cancellation:
The Story of Glasgow's Inner Ring Road
M8 Motorway | Inner Ring Road | Unbuilt Route
The Inner Ring Road was once heralded as the most important infrastructure project the city had ever seen, a visionary new road that would prepare Glasgow for a prosperous future. Yet almost 80 years after it was first mooted the ring road remains half finished—a victim of declining public support, indecision and evolving approaches to urban planning.
These articles, prepared following extensive research, chronicle the history of the Inner Ring Road project from its conception in 1945 by City Engineer Robert Bruce in his "First Planning Report", through to its curtailment and eventual cancellation four decades later.
This article introduces the project, discussing the reports and studies commissioned in the period from 1945 to the 1980s. In keeping with the terminology of the time reference is made to the north, west, south and east flanks of the route. These effectively formed a box encircling the city centre. Only the north and west flanks were eventually constructed, between 1965 and 1972. They form today’s M8.
Detailed articles follow for each of the contracts with a final page covering the unbuilt sections south and east of the city. There is also a photo gallery comprising several hundred images and records from the Glasgow Motorway Archive.
Final plan for Glasgow's Inner Ring Road, as approved by the Highways Committee of Glasgow Corporation in 1963. The north and west flanks, constructed between 1965 and 1972, take the M8 motorway around the city. The south and east flanks were cancelled in the early 1980s after several years of opposition.
History and Background
Plans for an inner ring road were first outlined in 1945 in Robert Bruce’s First Planning Report and were subsequently included within Sir Patrick Abercrombie's Clyde Valley Regional Report of 1949. Glasgow City Planners accepted the need for such a route and carried out initial design work throughout the 1950s. Even in those early days it was decided that the route should be constructed to urban motorway standards.
The 1960 quinquennial review, which was concerned primarily with urban renewal, offered an opportunity to take the plans forward. The city had a growing traffic problem and plans for the wholesale redevelopment of areas suffering from war damage or urban blight made the planning of new roads considerably more straightforward.
The city embraced the use of Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs) as a way of driving roads proposals forward. Designating a CDA gave local authorities the power to compulsorily acquire property in designated areas so they could be re-designed and developed. The Corporation designated 29 such areas, most notably at Townhead, Cowcaddens and Anderston.
The First Planning Report, published 1945, recommended a network of new arterial and sub-arterial routes across the city. Some would be entirely new roads, whilst others would involve upgrades to the existing network. © Glasgow City Archives
The First Planning Report (1945)
The First Planning Report was presented to the Highways & Planning Committee of Glasgow Corporation in May 1945. Produced by City Engineer and Master of Works Robert Bruce, it was the first to consider planning issues across the entire city. Its recommendations were developed over several years and were seen as the basis from which the Corporation should seek to "rebuild the city”.
The report covered many topics including highways, transportation, industry, housing and planning. Parts of it were deeply controversial: a key proposal was the wholesale demolition and replacement of the city centre. Other ideas, like large-scale public sector house building in areas like Castlemilk and Easterhouse, were more popular and shaped the city’s planning policy for over thirty years.
The First Planning Report is best remembered for its proposals for the redevelopment of the entire city centre. Glasgow's familiar grid system would be retained but all existing buildings would be demolished. © Glasgow City Archives
The report also focused on the improvement of roads and public transportation. The city was “very congested”, a situation Bruce expected to worsen considerably as the expected growth in motor vehicles was realised. The city’s road system, described as "completely inadequate", would be unable to cope with the predicted traffic flows (car ownership had already doubled in the ten years up to 1939). Casualty figures on the city’s roads were also high and it was stated that “propaganda alone cannot lessen this appalling rate”. A well planned, modern road system was therefore seen as essential if the city was to prosper in the latter half of the 20th century.
Bruce recommended 50 miles of new arterial roads with limited access points designed “exclusively for the use of fast moving, mechanically propelled vehicles”. These were to be dual carriageways with central reservations of varying widths and no street frontage. Junctions, referred to as intersections in the report, would ideally be grade separated and cyclists, pedestrians and “those with barrows” would be catered for in depressed subways with overbridges having a minimum clearance of 16 feet.
Amongst the routes recommended was an inner ring road around the city centre, an outer ring road and a series of radial routes to connect them and lead further afield. The speed limit throughout was to be 50mph.
Folio 7 of the report provides detail on plans for the Inner Ring Road. It is marked in red and was a mix of new and existing roads. Other proposed changes to the city centre road system are marked in orange and black. © Glasgow City Archives
The inner ring was particularly important to the realisation of an easily accessed, high-quality city centre as it would remove through traffic from the “narrow limits” of Glasgow’s “inner core”. Connections to outlying areas like Cathcart and Hyndland would also be dramatically improved allowing for improved retail, recreation and business areas—journey time savings of up 48 minutes were expected!
But a hint of the controversy to come was also noted: Bruce acknowledged that people might think the necessary demolition for these improvements “drastic” but they should measured this against the importance and long-life of the overall objectives.
Many of Bruce's ideas appeared futuristic in nature. This drawing of a multi-modal interchange was particularly innovative. It combined cars, trains, trams, buses and shops in a single location. © Glasgow City Archives
By August 1947 the Highways & Planning Committee had given their approval in principle to the roads proposals within the report—they were keenly aware of the need for the fast arterial routes.
Bruce’s ideas were to be progressed.
The 1950s: Towards Comprehensive Development
Throughout the 1950s the Corporation's Planning Department made slow progress towards the design of an inner ring road. A urban motorway along a route corridor similar to that proposed in by Bruce were included within the 1954 Glasgow Development Plan. These proposals were accepted by the Scottish Development Department later that year. Limited funding and progress towards the detailed proposal of Comprehensive Development Areas ultimately saw the Clyde Tunnel, a key link Bruce’s outer ring road, prioritised. As the CDA plans became firmer, a tentative route corridor for an inner motorway ring was identified between the CDAs at Townhead, Cowcaddens, Anderston, Shields Road, Laurieston and High Street.
After 1955, the Planning Department continued to develop designs for the route. It included a mix of at-grade and grade-separated interchanges and, for the most part, would involve the upgrade of existing roads such as High Street, North Street and St. George's Road. The north flank was positioned south of Buchanan Street Railway Station, interchanging with the east flank at the junction of Cathedral Street and High Street.
A traffic study was undertaken in 1958 to determine the traffic flows expected to use the route and officials from the Scottish Development Department and various divisions of the Corporation was formed a working group charged with making recommendations on future progress.
Limited progress was made on plans for an Inner Ring Road throughout the 1950s, however the Glasgow Corporation planning department developed a tentative proposal in the middle of the decade.
The quinquennial review of the Development Plan, published in early 1960, finalised the city centre Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs) and made allowances for the construction of an inner ring road as an urban motorway. The proposal was considered a priority, the plan's Written Statement describing the road proposals as follows:
1. - Having regard to the anticipated increase in the volume of traffic in the next 15 years, an Inner Ring Road will be essential for the city.
2 - That the said road will require to be of the scale and purpose of an urban motorway rather than a multi-purpose traffic road because:
i) Its primary purpose will be to divert traffic away from the Central Area, and it would therefore require to separate “bypass” traffic from traffic having a purpose in the Central Area.
ii) It must therefore consist of a major ring route having dual carriageways with a design offering no impediment to the rapid movement of through traffic.
iii) It must have grade separated junctions to solve the conflict at junctions between traffic flowing into the Central Area and the “bypass” traffic using the Inner Ring Road itself.
iv) It must not impede the secondary approach routes to the city centre, which must therefore pass under or over the Ring Road without connection so permitting the free redistribution of traffic having business in the Central Area
3 - Construction of the entire road, including a proposed new bridge over the River Clyde on the line of Clyde Ferry Street/Shearer Street, should if possible, be completed within the next 10 years.
In February 1960, the Corporation appointed Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners to undertake the detailed design of this “Inner Ring Road” as a matter of urgency.
The 1960s: Vision Becomes Reality
The appointment of Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners in early 1960 marked a turning point in the development of the inner ring road and led to a working relationship with Glasgow Corporation lasting more than 15 years.
The Corporation was eager to move forward but it was essential to determine a definitive line for the route before progress could be made. Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick was instructed to "proceed immediately with a limited traffic study" to provide the data need to produce the detailed design for the Inner Ring Road with a further traffic study on a much large scale being undertaken later that year. Planning the ring road required a detailed understanding of driver’s origins and destinations so surveys were carried out at 31 interview stations surrounding the city centre and covering all directions of traffic. The photograph below shows an interview point in the Townhead area of the city.
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick outlined a design in 1962. The immense project was to be split in two, with construction of the north and west flanks by 1975 and the south and east flanks to follow later.
Staff from Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick & Partners conducted road side traffic surveys across the city in 1960. The responses were analysed and used to predict traffic flows to the year 1990.
Large scale traffic studies of this type were new not just in Glasgow but the UK as a whole. It was followed soon after by the SELNEC study of North West England and many more. Shortly after the traffic study was complete the Corporation instructed SWK to broaden its scope to include plans for highway improvements within the entire city area.
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick made some basic assumptions. Firstly, that property densities within the city centre would decrease as the population was displaced to new housing schemes in the suburbs. Secondly, that vehicle ownership would increase considerably in the subsequent decades and that the new road system would be required to cope with this increased demand. At this time, car ownership was growing by 7% per year.
By the 1960s, many streets in the city centre were badly congested. Traffic speeds were as low as 5mph and journey times between east and west could take longer than an hour. This photo shows Castle Street, Townhead, in the autumn of 1964.
Several fundamental principles guided Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick’s design work, chiefly that the network be capable of coping with the threefold increased traffic flows predicted for 1990 (the Corporation feared allowing for unrestrained traffic growth would require urban clearance on a scale that would cause “unthinkable” damage to the fabric of the city). In a departure from earlier proposals the construction of new roads was also thought to make more economic sense than the upgrade of existing routes. Finally, it was proposed that through-traffic should be removed from surface streets to the greatest extent possible.
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick liaised closely with officials from the Planning Department, as much of the route lay within and between the fledgling CDA proposals. An excellent relationship existed between the two teams, which had worked on the development of the Cumbernauld road system just a few years before. With no British standards for the design of urban motorways, it was necessary to rely on American practice for some tasks—some of the design team had worked on American urban freeway schemes and had the necessary experience.
The Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick design team considered several alternative routes for the Inner Ring Road. In the end, a corridor similar to that detailed in the First Planning Report was chosen. It was largely dictated by the topography of the city centre and potential cost savings.
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick presented their Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road to the Corporation in June 1962. As instructed, they proposed new roads built to urban motorway standards with various distributor routes to filter traffic to and from the motorway. Radial links to other parts of the city and hinterland were also included. A panel of consultants, including renowned architect Sir William Holford, were consulted to consider the effect of the proposed route on the fabric of the city.
Alternative corridors were considered by the Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick design team whenever topography allowed. One key change from earlier proposals was to move the route north of Cowcaddens, offering significant economic benefits, and to build large sections of the route on elevated structures. Several junctions were proposed to allow for quick access to the city centre and sufficient capacity was integrated to ensure through traffic would be unimpeded, even at 1990 levels.
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick advised that the likely capital cost of completion would be considerable but were unable to provide the necessary details in the initial report. Final proposals would be presented in 1963 as part of the final highway plan for the city.
The approved corridor for the Inner Ring Road placed it within several Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs). Much of the motorway was to be constructed on elevated structures to allow for the continuation of the existing street network below.
The final design for the Inner Ring Road (shown at the top of this page) was approved by the Corporation in 1963 when Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick submitted highway proposals for the entire city. These proposals were subsequently included within “A Highway Plan for Glasgow”, published in 1965.
This final proposal included minor changes to junction layouts on the north and south flanks. A notable deletion was an on ramp for eastbound traffic located mid-way along the north flank adjacent to the slip roads for the Maryhill Motorway. It was also decided to cover a section through Charing Cross in cut-and-cover tunnel to reduce visual impact. Details of how the Inner Ring Road would connect to the radial routes was also provided.
The Highway Plan made recommendations on the phasing of construction of the route. The north and west flanks, being located within priority areas for comprehensive redevelopment, would be progressed first. The east and south flanks would follow within ten years and would be designed to carry higher flows of traffic than the other two sides.
Plans for the Inner Ring Road were incorporated into the network of new roads proposed in "A Highway Plan for Glasgow", published 1965. Only 50% of the proposed network was ultimately completed.
Contracts for the detailed design of the north and west flanks were awarded from late-1963. Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick was awarded the north flank package which included Townhead Interchange and Woodside. W.A Fairhurst & Partners was awarded the west flank package which included Kingston Bridge and Charing Cross. Townhead was selected to proceed first with construction commencing in late 1965. The Kingston Bridge followed in 1967, Woodside in 1968 and Charing Cross in 1969. Both flanks were completed by February 1972. Total construction costs of approximately £21 million (over £400 million today) were envisaged.
The 1970s and Beyond: Criticism, Curtailment & Cancellation
The scale of the IRR construction was so immense that the Corporation divided the work in to two broad phases. Between 1965 and 1972 the focus was on the route between Townhead and Tradeston via St George’s Cross and little progress was made on its counterpart round the south and east of the city. This phased approach, which seemed very sensible, would ultimately prove fatal to the project.
The sheer scale of the disruption and change brought by the north and west flanks, especially through Charing Cross, shocked residents and prompted many to start asking questions about the wider IRR proposals. Several groups, including elected officials, began to oppose first the proposed route of the east flank (which they feared would do far greater damage to the fabric of city than that seen at Charing Cross) and then the very idea of it at all. Protesters calling for the east flank to be cancelled attended the opening ceremony of the newly completed Charing Cross section in 1972.
Aware of the growing concern, the Corporation arranged for public participation exercises to be held throughout 1972. The product of these consultations was a revised route corridor that skirted the culturally significant buildings affected by the original proposal. SWK got to work on this and published a revised proposal for the east flank in 1973. This was considerably less controversial, though it was revised again before being passed to the incoming Strathclyde Regional Council in July and December 1975.
All this was to no avail—public opinion remained loudly and stubbornly against the scheme. A 1977 report, part of the Structure Plan for the city centre, proposed non-motorway options for the remaining sections of the IRR but suggested retaining the capacity to upgrade the route in future.
By the 1980s, plans to complete ring road were shelved and an exercise to consider a new way forward was ordered. Only plans for the section of the east flank from Townhead to London Road remained, but even that ambition died when Strathclyde Region was dissolved in 1996.
Charing Cross would prove the final section of the Inner Ring Road to be completed.
From the Archive
Shot in 1974 by engineer John Cullen, this film shows the recently completed north and west flanks of the Inner Ring Road around Glasgow city centre.
Temporary connections to surface streets can be seen at Kingston Bridge and Townhead Interchange as the M8 motorway contracts east and west of the ring road are still under construction.
This article was first published in October 2020.