Chapter 3.

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There were only 8,000 cars in the whole of Britain at the start of the 20th century.
By the end of the century, the car population had soared to 21 million.


The motor vehicle: road dust and safety issues.

The first decade of the new century was marked by a growing number of motor vehicles.  They were being driven on macadamised highways, the gravelly surfaces of which were formed from imperfectly consolidated broken stone.  While ideal for horses’ hooves, which could find a firm foothold in both dry and wet conditions, this form of unsealed surface caused faster moving motor vehicles to throw up clouds of dust in dry weather, while in wet weather, horse dropping mixed with urine and rain formed mud, which was scattered by motor traffic.  Towns usually opted for roads surfaced with stone sets or cobbles.  These were hard wearing and did not pose the dust problem, but they were slippery in wet weather, a problem made worse by the liberal deposits of horse manure and urine piled upon them.  Horses often came to grief, and steam and motor powered vehicles could all too easily slide off the side of the road.

Compacting stone sets ― note the foreman beating time.
Illustrated London News, 1851.

In an age that had yet to come to terms with the internal combustion engine, other road safety issues arose, not least among which were accidents resulting from the higher speeds now being attained, and the noise from this new form of traffic causing horses — still the predominant form of traction — to panic.

The solution to the problems of dust and mud was solved in 1902 by Edgar Hooley, County Surveyor for Nottinghamshire.  Hooley patented an all-weather road surfacing material made from mixing tar with ironstone slag, which he called ‘tarmac’.  When laid, tarmac acted as a sealant, suppressing both dust and loose matter, but a considerable number of years were to elapse before most roads had been ‘tarmacadamised’.

To some extent road safety issues were addressed by the 1903 Motor Car Act. [1]  This introduced the crime of reckless driving and imposed penalties.  Road vehicles were to be registered and licensed, with number plates showing their registration numbers, and a national speed limit of 20 mph was imposed with local limits imposed by county councils as necessary.  Vehicle drivers had also to be licensed, the minimum qualifying age being 17 years, but a compulsory driving test was not introduced until 1934 with the passage of that year’s Road Traffic Act.

An extract from the 1935 edition of the Highway Code.

Funding road improvements.

The perennial question now arose of ways and means; how were the funds to be raised to improve roads to meet the new demands of motor traffic?

It was generally agreed that road users should bear at least a portion of the cost, but no one wanted to return to toll-gates as a means of raising revenue.  The solution adopted by the Chancellor, David Lloyd-George, was, first, to introduce a graduated tax on cars, commencing at £2. 2s for a 6½ h.p. engine rising to £32 for an engine in the range 40 to 60 h.p; second, to add 3d. per gallon duty on petrol.  The proceeds, expected to be £1M annually, were to be paid into a ‘Road Improvement Fund’, which was to be administered by a newly created ‘Road Board’.  The Board’s role was not to administer road maintenance, this task being in the hands of local authorities, but to use the Fund to subsidise new road construction projects, to improve existing roads, and to put in place measures to suppress road dust. [2]

Although the Road Improvement Fund was ring-fenced and controlled by the Road Board, any grants made from it had first to be sanctioned by the Treasury.  The Treasury has long believed that all forms of government revenue should be paid into a common pot, the Consolidated Fund, from which ministries would compete for funding; to them, the existence of a ring-fenced fund was anathema.  Perhaps for that reason, the Road Board did not, during its short existence, bring about any great improvements in the national road network.  It initiated a mere handful of road schemes — these being the Great West Road, a new road between Leicester and Newark (along the Fosse Way), and the Croydon Bypass — with over 90% of its grants being for improvements in road surfacing to suppress dust.

The Road Fund.

Under the 1920 Roads Act, the Road Improvement Fund’s assets were transferred to a ‘Road Fund’ to be administered by the newly created ‘Ministry of Transport’, while that year’s Finance Act removed the duty on imported motor spirit but introduced increased duties on motor vehicles.  Private cars were to be taxed on cylinder bore, passenger vehicles on seating capacity, and other commercial vehicles on unladen weight.

High unemployment after the end of World War I led the government to provide county councils with grants for road improvements, particularly where labour was to be recruited from the most affected areas.  There were two unemployment relief programmes, the first from 1920 to 1925 and the second from 1929 to 1930.  Grants were limited to trunk roads and bridges, with the money coming from the Road Fund.  By 1935, some 500 miles of bypasses had been built, including the Derby Ring Road and the Oxford Northern Bypass, together with the UK’s first inter-urban highway, the East Lancashire Road (A580, Liverpool to Salford), constructed between 1929 and 1934 at a cost £8 million.

During the 1920s and 30s, the ring fence around the Road Fund was gradually removed.  Justified by one excuse or another, sums were transferred from the Road Fund into the Consolidated Fund, until, following the 1936 Finance Act, the proceeds from road vehicle duties were paid directly into the Consolidated Fund together with other taxes.  Although not wound up until 1955, the Road Fund now ceased to exist in practical terms, road transport then becoming a convenient source of tax revenues that were easily collectable, and relatively inelastic and predictable.  That situation remained until July 2015, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his budget speech that taxes paid on cars will, from 2020-21, by paid into a new Road Fund, the proceeds of which would be used to pay for road improvement.



The Ministry of Transport.

World War I. had presented significant problems of transport co-ordination and this, together with the increasing role of the State, led in 1919 to the disbanding of the Road Board and the creation of the Ministry of Transport. [3]

The new ministry took over all central government roles in respect of roads, bridges and the traffic thereon.  It introduced a system of grants for local authorities to spend on the upkeep and development of their roads, changed the road taxation system and, among other initiatives . . . .

• carried out the first national road traffic census in 1922;

• introduced Traffic Commissioners to control licensing and regulation of heavy goods vehicle, bus and coach operators, and the registration of local bus services. Road Traffic Act 1930 (20 & 21 Geo. 5, c. 43);

• made compulsory third party motor insurance (1930);

• introduced the Highway Code (1931, enlarged in 1934);

• set up the Road Research Laboratory to investigate matters of road construction, design and safety (1933);

• introduced a national system of road signage (Maybury Report, 1933);

• introduced guidance and standards for a range of highway design and management topics (including street lighting, traffic signals and road safety);

• developed a national system of speed limits. The Road Traffic Act 1934 (24 & 25 Geo. 5, c. 50) introduced a speed limit of 30 mph in built-up areas for cars and motorcycles (speedometers were not made compulsory for new cars until 1937);

• introduced compulsory driving tests (Road Traffic Act 1934);

• took direct control of our core road network (centrally managed for the first time since the Roman occupation) through the Trunk Roads Act 1936 (1 Edw. 8. & 1 Geo. 6, c. 5). This Act placed 4,505 miles of main roads outside large towns under the control of the Ministry of Transport, and laid out a blueprint for national roads development.

By the mid 1930s the financial crisis of the Depression years was mostly over.  The Ministry of Transport drew up a new five year programme (1935-1940) for schemes costing £73m, with grants being made to local highway authorities of between 33% and 85%, depending on the type of road involved. While some of these schemes were built, the programme was curtailed by the onset of World War II.


Despite the spate of spending on unemployment relief programmes, by the 1930s the UK’s road infrastructure lagged far behind that of its economic rivals.  By 1939, Germany, Italy and the United States each had extensive motorway  networks (i.e. networks of fast roads reserved for motor vehicles).  Italy led the way with the opening the Milano-Laghi dual highway (Milan to Varese) between 1924 and 1926.  Almost 3,000 miles of autobahn had been completed in Germany by 1939, and a further 1,000 miles was under construction, a total exceeding that of the UK’s network 60 years later!

In Britain, some interest was shown in the development of trunk routes as motorways.  In 1936 the Institution of Highway Engineers published a plan for a motorway network of some 2,800 miles.  This was followed two years later by a plan put forward by the County Surveyors’ Society for 1,000 miles of motorway running between London and Glasgow; London and Newcastle; London and Swansea; London and Southampton/Portsmouth; Manchester and Hull; Penrith and Scotch Corner; and Sheffield and Bristol.  But war intervened before anything further could be done.

Even before the War ended, the Ministry of Transport realised that it would not be long before the country needed motorways, and soon after the cessation of hostilities, a delegation of road engineers was sent to Germany to study German practice in building their autobahns.  Legislation was passed in 1949 authorising the construction of ‘special roads’ — later to be known as ‘motorways’ — to be restricted to specific types of vehicles, but the continuation of wartime austerity into the post war years prevented the commencement of motorway building.  It was not until 1955 that orders to build the first two ‘special road schemes’ were made under the 1949 Act, these being the Preston and Lancaster bypasses, which opened in 1958 and 1960 respectively, later forming sections of the M6 (finally completed in December 2008 with the opening of the Cumberland Gap).  In 1959, the first major inter-urban motorway to be opened in Britain was the 74-mile section of the M1 between Junction 5 (Watford) and Junction 18 (Crick/Rugby).

Road administration in England today.

The Department for Transport (formerly the Ministry of Transport) is now the government department responsible for the English transport network (Transport Scotland manages roads in Scotland and the Welsh Assembly manages roads in Wales).  Among the Department’s roles is to plan and invest in transport infrastructure, including roads.

The Department is supported by 20 agencies and public bodies, among which is the Highways Agency, the agency responsible for managing the core road network, i.e. major motorways and trunk roads of approximately 4,300 miles in length, routes that account for 34% of all road travel and 67% of lorry freight travel — approximately four million vehicles use the network every day.  The Agency is also responsible for the maintenance of 9,000 bridges, 9,000 other structures and 34,000 drainage assets along the network.

Local authorities maintain minor roads, and while the most important elements of the network are a central government responsibility, the Highways Agency may ask local authorities to undertake road repairs for them on an agency basis.

Some important Acts of Parliament relating to roads and their use are listed in the Appendix.




The Highways Act 1555 (2 & 3 Ph. & Mary c.8): required parishes to maintain roads in their area, appoint surveyors and introduced the obligation of statute labour.

Ordinance for the better amending and keeping in repair the Common Highways within the Nation 1654: provided parishes with powers to levy rates on landowners in their area for the upkeep of public highways.

Repair of Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Highway Act 1663 (15 Car. II. c.1): reputedly the first Turnpike Act.

The General Turnpike Act 1773 (13 Geo 3 c.84): incorporated into one law the provisions applicable to all turnpike roads, leaving only the special provisions applicable to a particular road to be inserted into its Act.  The Act also placed the appointed trustees under the direction of the county justices.  However, the Act did nothing to remedy the weaknesses of the system.  It made no requirement for trust accounts to be audited on both a financial and a value-for-money basis, thus leaving some trusts ineffective. Indeed, many became overwhelmed by the interest due on the mortgages they had raised to the extent that, by the early 1800s, many were earning only enough revenue to service interest payments, leaving nothing for road maintenance. This, and other similar Acts, made no requirements for trusts along the course of long-distance routes to consolidate ― on average, each trust had control of 20 to 30 miles of road.

Highway Act 1835 (5 & 6 Will 4 c.50): placed a duty on parish surveyors to maintain roads in the parish and pay from a rate levied on local landowners. The Act abolished statute labour in favour of highway rates and encouraged commercial stationers to produce pro-forma highway account books and rate books. It also introduced rules of conduct, including keeping to left when passing, and fines for breaching these.

Locomotive Act 1861 (24 & 25 Vict c.70): first regulated the weights (12 tons maximum) and speeds of mechanised road vehicles. Speeds were limited to 5mph in town and 10 mph in the country.

Locomotives Act 1865 (28 & 29 Vict c.83): sometimes know as the ‘Red Flag Act’ this reduced speed limits to 2 mph in town and 4 mph in the country and mechanised vehicles had to be preceded by a person carrying a red flag.

Highways and Locomotives (Amendment) Act 1878 (41 & 42 Vict c.77): transferred the responsibility for roads maintenance, along with rate levy rights, from parishes to districts.

Highways Rate Assessment and Expenditure Act 1882 (45 & 46 Vict c.27): introduced central government grants towards roads expenditure.

The Local Government Act 1888 (51 & 52 Vict c.41): established county councils and county borough councils in England and Wales and made them responsible for the repair of county roads and bridges, along with rating powers; and any other roads they deemed to be ‘main’.

Locomotives on Highways Act 1896 (59 & 60 Vict c.36): introduced classification of mechanical road vehicles defining a class of ‘light locomotives’ and increased speed limits to 12 mph.  Required vehicles to carry lights (between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise) and be provided with an audible alarm, such as a bell. The speed limit was raised from 4 mph to 14 mph.

The Motor Car Act 1903 (3 Edw.7, c. 36): introduced the registration of motor vehicles, the licensing of drivers and the offence of reckless driving. The Act raised the speed limit to 20 mph and introduced regulations regarding the minimum braking ability of vehicles.

The Development and Roads Improvement Funds Act 1909 (9 Edw. 7. c. 47): introduced a horsepower and a (3d) petrol tax, the net proceeds of which were paid into the Road Improvement Fund, later known as the Road Fund, which was managed by the Road Board created by the Act. The Road Board did not undertake construction or maintenance of roads, but controlled grants to local authorities to maintain them. It was stated that the Treasury would not gain from the new duties and that all the revenue raised would be spent on the roads ― this ideal was short lived.

Ministry of Transport Act 1919 (10 Geo. 5 c.50): created the Ministry of Transport and abolished to Road Board.

Finance Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. 5 c. 18): provided for grants to local authorities for the upkeep and improvement of their roads.

Roads Act 1920 (10 & 11 Geo. 5 c.72): provided for grants to local authorities for the upkeep and improvement of their roads.

Road Traffic Act 1930 (20 & 21 Geo. 5 c.43): removed all speed limits for motor cars, but introduced the 30 mph speed limit for buses and coaches. It introduced a highway code and compulsory third party motor insurance. On the licensing of drivers, it including provisional licences and driving tests for disabled drivers.

The Road Traffic Act 1934 (24 & 25 Geo. 5. c. 50): reintroduced a speed limit for cars of 30 mph in built-up areas and made the driving test compulsory for all new drivers. The Belisha beacon (named after the Transport Minister) was introduced to clearly identify pedestrian crossings.

Finance Act 1936 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c.34): abolished the special arrangement for motor taxes which were thenceforth to be paid into the consolidated fund.

Trunk Roads Act 1936 (26 Geo. 5 & 1 Edw. 8 c.5): gave the Ministry of Transport direct responsibility for a network of trunk roads (initially 4,460 miles in length) in the United Kingdom but excluding Northern Ireland. Thirty major roads were classed as trunk roads and the minister of transport took direct control of them and the bridges across them.

Trunk Road Act 1946 (9 & 10 Geo. 6. c. 30): extended the trunk road network to 8,190 miles.

Transport Act 1947 (10 & 11 Geo. 6. c. 49): nationalised the railways, long-distance road haulage and various other types of transport and ancillary activities and created the British Transport Commission to oversee their activities.

Special Roads Act 1949 (12 & 13 Geo. 6. c.32.): allowed the construction of roads restricted to specific types of vehicles and restricted access by the utilities ― in practice Motorways.



1. Motor Car Act, 1903 (3 Edward VII. c. 36).
2. Development and Road Improvement Funds Act 1909 (9 Edward VII, c. 47).  Section 8 (5) of Part II of the Act reads:

“For the purposes of this Part of this Act the expression ‘improvement of roads’ includes the widening of any road, the cutting off the corners of any road where land is required to be purchased for that purpose, the levelling of roads, the treatment of a road for mitigating the nuisance of dust, and the doing of any other work in respect of roads beyond ordinary repairs essential to placing a road in a proper state of repair; and the expression ‘roads’ includes bridges, viaducts, and subways.”

3. Ministry of Transport Act 1919 (9 & 10 Geo. 5, c. 50).


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