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The background to the Motorway network in Scotland - post 1987

Scotland motorway building overtakes England - 1987-1997

The decade following the Conservative government's 1987 re-election was a vibrant post-war second wind in Scottish roads development. It was a decade in which Scottish engineers could claim to have built more urban and rural motorway than their English counterparts and to have led major change in the way roads were to be planned, designed, built, and operated in the UK.

The Manifesto Commitment to Upgrade the A74 to Motorway

The catalyst for major change in Scotland was the pledge in the incumbent government's Scottish manifesto to upgrade the A74 to motorway standard.

The commitment to create 100km of new motorway was formally agreed on the rough and ready basis that £150m might be needed to upgrade the existing dual carriageway A74 - and that the project could be accommodated within existing road programme spending. No-one believed the figure but it was a short-term formula from which the serious argument could at least begin - but after the election.

The commitment to upgrade the A74 was not driven by the growing severe congestion being seen on major motorways and trunk routes south of the Border. As the debate over Scottish devolution grew, the motorway symbolised the unionist policies of the then government. The fizzling out of the M6 motorway just 6 miles short of the Scottish border was a symbol of second rate treatment which rankled with many Scots.

Getting the A74 Upgrading Underway

No preconceived ideas underpinned the A74 commitment. It was to start from a blank sheet of paper. The project was split into three consultant's commissions to take it forward.

Upgrading the Beattock section was a major engineering challenge. The steep climb to Beattock summit is immortalised in the evocative film to Betjeman's railway poem. Now the new motorway, with the minimum curvature and gradient constraints of a high speed road, would have to be shoehorned somehow into the narrow valley along with the river, railway and an all-purpose road. It was almost certain that there was no alternative route to the Beattock valley and the detailed design commission was awarded to W A Fairhurst & Partners.

Conventional feasibility study commissions were awarded for the northern and southern sections. The southern section, some 60km long, included 10km in England. This commission was given to Scotland's largest roads consultant, Glasgow based Babtie, Shaw and Morton. Babties were also to oversee "whole route" issues.

The small Edinburgh based firm, Kirkpatrick and partners, were given planning responsibility for the short northernmost section centred on Abington.

Because of the engineering problems, the central Beattock section was built last. The design did prove to be the most difficult. But the whole route in Scotland - and a mile south of the Border overseen by the Scottish Office - was completed by the millennium. The section in England however was not. The 6 mile motorway gap in the route from Glasgow to Naples would take a little longer to resolve.

By 1999, it had been established that the A74 upgrading would realistically cost a full £400m and that, even without the A74, the roads programme in preparation was already well in excess of anything that could be funded in a decade. Congestion was also growing across the central belt and addressing it would be expensive - notwithstanding it could deliver the high economic returns that government policy sought. The pressure from local communities for bypasses, and to deliver modern road connections between Scotland's major centres, was unabated.

Routes South of Edinburgh

The bold commitment to upgrade the A74 to the west did not go down well everywhere. Some - notably in the Scottish capital and highlands - saw the commitment to upgrade a reasonable dual carriageway to motorway not only as a low priority but as a threat. In the highlands and borders, the fear was that the money needed to upgrade the motorway would inevitably mean less for them.

In Edinburgh, access from the south was a sore issue. No capital in Europe was more poorly served. Edinburgh did not even link to the south with a dual carriageway, let alone a motorway.

The elderly single carriageway A1 between Edinburgh and Newcastle was widely seen as unfit for purpose as a long haul route. The high proportion of large heavy vehicles and the lack of overtaking opportunity meant uncomfortable driving at best - and a well-publicised and unacceptable stream of death and serious injuries under the A1 "brand".

There were lower standard alternatives routes through the borders - around some 20 miles shorter via the A68 or A697. Many Edinburgh residents favoured this route.

The geography of Britain deceives the eye of many. Edinburgh on the East Coast is due north of Carlisle on the West Coast. The high passes forged by the M6 mean that the historical A1 Great North Road made little sense as a route from London to Edinburgh in late 20th century Britain. What was a problem for drivers arriving in Scotland off the M6 was to choose the least uncomfortable elderly single carriageway routes when peeling off the A74 towards Edinburgh. Some drivers even refused all of these options and routed themselves via the dual carriageway Bellshill bypass close to Glasgow, and the M8

All these choices, and the need to find ways to serve traffic from the south and Borders, had led to a wide ranging commission from the Scottish Office to Scott Wilson and Partners whose traffic planning had been well called on in Scottish studies. The key recommendation of their report was for a new "Fastlink" running broadly along the A71 corridor and mirroring the compromise favoured by the railway planners. This route would also help the development of fast growing Livingston and the West Lothian area generally.

New Roads by New Means

Down south, although it was not yet institutionalised, the private finance initiative was being born and roads and transport projects leading the way. The Channel Tunnel was first. It was followed by the M25 Dartford Crossing which was driven through by Mrs Thatcher against the then prevailing Treasury orthodoxy encapsulated in the so-called "Ryrie Rules". Once logical, Sir Williams' rules had become a bizarre form of Catch 22 as public spending was reduced and high return capital projects were crowded out in favour of current spending. Treasury still blocked the private sector from doing that because, in theory, it was more expensive even though they would not get done at all.

The New Roads By New Means Green Paper was delivered by experienced Secretary of State for Transport Paul Channon. His strategy had been to deliver action on private finance to satisfy Mrs Thatcher while arguing the imperative of expanded public funding for roads to tackle congestion in the interim. The Scottish Office signed up to the Green Paper gently floating the possibility that private finance might deliver the Skye Bridge.

In England, action to double the number of schemes being prepared in the roads programme was launched. Seminars on how the industry could gear up the new super highways were held. Action in Scotland was different. Treasury's increased allocation for roads was only in the region of 30%. This sum could not sustain a new business like approach to the existing programme let alone the new unavoidable priorities. The programme couldn't be financed and now there was to be a switch to concentrating on what could be done.

The switch was not without casualties. The high spend preparing schemes, which were never delivered, meant consultancy fees would fall and consolidation in consulting. The switch to bigger schemes meant fewer medium sized schemes for contractors to bid for.

Contracting for Roads

Contracting was becoming a game for higher stakes not least because the form of the contracts steadily changed aiming to encourage innovation and alternative tenders. Intelligent, intense John Howison emerged as Deputy Chief Road Engineer and implemented an "alternative tenders initiative". Contractors likened the process to filling in a pools coupon because they could offer so many options but felt the chance of winning with a best value rather than lowest price option was low. Few believed that the public sector culture of picking the cheapest would be overturned. Happy to break the mould, the Roads Directorate awarded the Brechin Bypass contract to a proposal submitted by one of the highest bidders. And the clients representatives were sent off on a course with the contractors team to learn about partnership.

The new approach insisted that the normal period for a new road to be delivered should be around 6 to 8 years from concept to opening. Financial planning was to be done on an 8-year basis. Already the first motorway schemes on the A74 were being fast-tracked to demonstrate that delivery could be efficiently done in 4 years with committed project management.

The teams being lead by A74 Project Director Lt Colonel Denton Udall began to enjoy delivering ever more astonishing progress on the ground. Ministers and the public could hardly fail to notice that the road carrying 70% of Scotland's trade had turned into Britain's longest construction site as planning permissions on 13 sections came pouring out of the pipeline followed by contracts.

The Cities - Glasgow and Edinburgh

By 1988, the "great car economy" of the Thatcher years saw the small reserve of capacity on the "thin blue lines" of motorway swallowed up. Major traffic congestion became a regular feature of British motorways particularly around the great cities of London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. Even the dual 5 lane stretches of M8 in Glasgow became overloaded with the Kingston Bridge experiencing flows exceeded only on the western section of the M25.

In 1988, the new Edinburgh city bypass was completed as a Special Road to expressway standard. The new orbital quickly ran at capacity levels. The road had been 30% funded by the Scottish Office who accepted that 30% of the traffic was "long distance". This financial formula was one of the many compromises struck by Graham Bowie, Lothian's Chief Executive, and Peter Mason, Lothian's County Surveyor who had to change course more than most as the political wind changed.

The bypass continued east onto the A1. Dual carriageway sections had been built as the Musselburgh and Tranent Bypass. One tangible output of the Routes South of Edinburgh Study, the dualling was extended to Haddington, but after watching an elderly group of hikers climbing over the central reserve barrier to cross the road John Howison moved to designate the new section and the existing dualling as Special Roads - effectively motorways with green signs.

In the west of the Country, the partnership between Scottish Office and Strathclyde delivered a string of major peri-urban improvements on the M80, M74, M77 and the new M8 St James interchange at Glasgow Airport. General consensus was even reached on the seemingly impossible, the final completion of the M74 extension to create a Glasgow motorway box which would at once open up development and relieve the overloaded M8.

The new St James interchange was not only a symbol of the new open skies policy which saw the end of Scottish flights directed into Prestwick but also the beginning of a major change in the way in which roads were to be procured in Britain.

Dawson had been exasperated by the seemingly endless rise in estimated cost of a project which was rich in structures. By the time the estimated costs had risen from under £10m to closer to £30m, he argued to Strathclyde that "design and build" procurement was the way forward. A "design and build" competition would give freer rein to alternative designs and allow the bidders to take responsibility for any cost overruns. After a weekend's thought, Strathclyde's powerful and proactive management team of Don Carruthers and Alex Hamilton agreed.

Fresh in mind was contractor Morrison's design and build tender for the Dornoch Bridge. Innovation there had shaved significant sums off the estimated cost in an elegant solution to bridge the final firth north of the A9. The Scottish Office had invested significant time too in developing the new forms of contact and management that would be needed.

Design and build became the Scottish Office norm for doing business.

Within ICE, Bob MacGowan, the personable Chairman of the Association Consulting Engineers from Scott Wilson told the annual dinner they should rename themselves the Association of Design Sub-Contractors. But design firms such as Scott Wilson, Fairhurst, Kirkpatrick and Babtie, survived and delivered sound schemes working sometimes for the client and other times for the contractors. Edinburgh based contractors Morrisons (despite the formal stance of opposition taken by Fraser Morrison, as Chairman of the FCEC) and, Balfour Beatty also delivered strongly in the new environment. And they did well in English markets too.

Design and build sought to change the industry's view to construction. It sought good ideas from the contractors who were put firmly in the driving seat. With the new control freedoms, the responsibility for delivery and price were also strengthened. Decisions were taken by those who could manage the outcome and intellectual resources were put into the projects before construction rather than into claims afterwards.

The M74 extension into the east of the Glasgow conurbation was an early design and build contract. Its construction was not made easier by the demise of the contractor Lilley over the New Year break, brought about by property speculation by the holding company. However, three bidders keen to take over the D&B contract were assembled by the liquidators and the bid by Kier was seen as far better value than the other tested option, the new NEC target cost contract, could deliver.

The joint SRC/Scottish Office M77 Ayr Road route, on an innovative "design, build and commission" contract sought to combine the efficiencies of design and build with more efficient financing than then available under the "design, build, finance and operate model". Containing the contract price to £50m, 25% of which was to be paid as retention for trouble-free service over the first 3 years of operation, allowed Ministers to offer the Council ring fenced funding to supplement their pressed resources and for the scheme to proceed. Alan Stewart, the Minister of State and local constituency MP was a prime mover. He later visited protesters at the construction site and was involved in an incident which cost him his portfolio.

The Birth of a New Era

In 1997, a new Government with its promise of a new Scottish Parliament was elected. Short term, the financing prospects for the roads which Scots support more than any other region of the UK, were to diminish.

Completing the job

The years since 1995 have seen extensive political changes in Scotland. The tenure of Ian Lang as Secretary of State gave way to Michael Forsyth until the Labour Party won the 1997 Election. Michael Forsyth oversaw the changes resulting from Local Government Reform in 1996, which introduced the first comprehensive review of the Scottish trunk road network since 1946. At the same time the arrangements for managing the trunk road network moved from reliance on the (now much smaller) local road authorities as Agents to the appointment of Managing Agents, and for the dual carriageway and motorway network, the first introduction in the UK of single point service delivery Operating Companies. Donald Dewar's tenure as Secretary of State saw a moratorium on starting new road construction whilst the Scottish Strategic Road Review was prepared. In June 1999, Devolution was delivered and the Scottish Executive emerged with administrative and legislative powers. A greater share of the transport budget was devoted to integrated and public transport modes and the significant programme of new construction preparation was cut back to allow work to concentrate on 6 new major projects, each with a demanding delivery target. Schemes for filling in the gaps in the motorway network, the A80 and the A8 were abandoned. Responsibility for promoting the M9 link to the south of the Forth Road Bridge and the M74 in Glasgow was handed back to the local road authorities. Only the M77 Ayr Road south of Glasgow was retained as a trunk road motorway project. Only now, the benefits of a good basic motorway network are being more widely accepted.