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Chapter 7: Contracting to build the motorways

This chapter is compiled from contributions to the Archive by many colleagues. Particularly noteworthy were the contributions from David Quinion, Howard Stevens and Keith Lawson who produced the summaries that are the basis of this chapter. This introduction and the short retrospective that concludes the chapter was prepared by John Cox, formerly Managing Director of Tarmac (now Carrilion) National Construction and a Past President of IHT.

Primary source material was difficult to come by from contractors. Many companies do not appear to have kept any archival material which although unfortunate is perhaps not surprising. Motorways were just part of their contracting business and records, which many companies now keep for up to 15 years, have been destroyed. Individuals have kept some brochures and other items but contractors staff generally believed that when they had finished the job and the works had been turned over to the public, their involvement was at an end and they packed up their personal belongings and moved on. Contract files, drawings, diaries and other contractual papers would have been retained on site by those involved in settling the final account and subsequently sent to storage or destroyed.

While material relating to later motorways is more abundant, staff are busy and unable to devote time to peripheral tasks such as archiving material that are not essential to the job in hand. It was hoped to draw on Employers and Engineers records but restructuring, busy staff and the loss of material have reduced the volume of available material. By forming regional groups and by collection of oral interview material the story has been reconstructed, just in time before there are no participants with first hand knowledge to draw on. This chapter draws on this work and the personal experience of the compilers to construct an account of contracting practice during the construction of the motorway network and what lessons can be derived in retrospect.

But, what can be said by way of introduction to all three parts that would be a shared common view? First of all, contractors would agree that the roots of contracting lie in the background of the Industrial Revolution and the huge increase in productivity it engendered. The changes that came about shaped the health and wealth of Great Britain and continue to do so. The civil engineering industry grew from the construction of canals and railways providing the prototypes and patterns for the 20th century motorway building programme.

Contracting to Build the MotorwaysAlthough the railways played a major part in the industrialisation of Great Britain, they were not as significant as the transport revolution brought about by the invention of the internal combustion engine, the lorry and the car. Mass production of vehicles and the creation of transport infrastructure provided work for thousands and the wide availability of road transport provided undreamed of mobility for millions.

Consequently, it is not unreasonable to label the latter part of the 20th century the second transport revolution. Certainly the motorway and trunk road system will, for the foreseeable future, carry the bulk of goods and people between the major centres of population and commerce.

So what has all that to do with contracting? Well, it provides the background of an industry that has been highly influential in shaping the health and well being of the country and continues to do so.


Contractual procedures

Over the major period of the motorway programme the contract was between the Employer and the Contractor. The general conditions of contract were based on the ICE 'Conditions of contract and forms of tender, agreement and bond for use in connection with works of civil engineering construction', which is now in its seventh edition. Roles are defined in the contract for the Employer and the Contractor, also an Engineer independent of both parties. The main responsibilities of the three are set out in the Figure.

The Lofthouse committee

The 1966 Lofthouse committee report 'Efficiency in road construction' produced by the National Economic Development Office was expected by the construction industry to be used as a basis for a well organised and coordinated motorway programme. It is a matter of regret that the report was never fully implemented.

The report recognised the value of encouraging a small number of contractors to specialise in major highway works. This core of contractors would then be able to forecast likely future work opportunities and would be encouraged to make substantial investments in the reasonable assurance of a continuous workload for skilled staff and equipment and would develop innovative methods and designs. Such a collaborative arrangement was expected to secure speed, efficiency and high standards with economy. However the ideals of the Lofthouse committee did not materialise and the programme was, in the opinion of major contractors, not pursued with the efficiency it may have been.

A general problem was that contractors came from a background of building other public works in war and post-war conditions. Motorways were a new experience. Contractors took motorway work which was, for the most part, outside their immediate experience and was often of a size that tested their ability to handle and manage. The contracts had to be brought to a peak of production very quickly and as quickly run down.

In the first 15 years there was a reasonable certainty of large contracts and the industry was kept busy over the whole country. Staff movement was essential and life was nomadic. Social economic and educational factors greatly influenced the mobility of labour and had a profound effect on the way contractors were obliged to manage their business.

The number of contracts let over five year periods up to 1985 is set out in George Charlesworth's book 'The history of British motorways'.


Number of contracts














The table does not include extensive works in the construction of high standard all purpose roads but does illustrate the growth and decline of motorway construction. Coping with the work in the early years distracted the industry away from lobbying as hard as it should have for full implementation of the Lofthouse recommendations. Nonetheless over the last four decades changes have taken place, some quite subtle in character others fundamental in their effect on the procurement and management of contracts. Regrettably cooperation between Engineer and Contractor has become strained and the Engineer increasingly looks over his shoulder and ensures that his professional indemnity insurance is up to date.

Contrasting experience and views

This chapter seeks to record the changing experiences and views of major civil engineering contractors specialising in motorways and major roads since the opening of the first motorway and how they adapted practice to meet the challenges of the time. The next three parts of the chapter present those views in turn.

  • The view of the service provider, which follows immediately after this introduction is based on a contribution to the Archive by David Quinion, who as Chief Engineer for a major contractor takes the view of a service provider responsible for securing work that would be profitable for the contractor.
  • The next part of the chapter is based on the views of Howard Stevens, formerly a Director of Sir Alfred McAlpine, and reflects the views of a line manager responsible for dealing with the problems encountered during the construction process.
  • In the third part of the chapter Keith Lawson, formerly Plant Director, Tarmac ((now Carrilion) Construction, reviews the development of construction plant over the motorway years.

The reader will find that the first two parts cover much the same ground, but in doing so the two accounts provide a comparison between the view from head office and the view from the construction site. Finally, it is only equitable to point out that the Department and others involved in the construction of motorways will each hold different views of the experience. Moreover there were certainly wide variations in the way contracts were conducted. This chapter sets out the experience from the viewpoint of the contractors. Other views have been expressed earlier in this volume, particularly from within the Department in Chapters 1 and 6; the contrasts are illuminating.

The following subjects are covered in the printed document (Volume 2):


The initial tasks
Construction on site
Construction methods
Comments on specification requirements
The contract documents
The introduction of new techniques and ideas
Working on active motorways


Acquiring work
The construction process
Preparing the site
Drainage and ducts
Communication and lighting
Other works


Earthmoving equipment
Miscellaneous plant and transport
Maintaining the Equipment
Safety legislation
Economics of plant
The Lofthouse report