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Book Review: Wesley Johnston, ‘The Belfast Urban Motorway: Engineering Ambition And Social Conflict’, Colourpoint Books, Newtownards, Jan 2014

In 1967 Belfast Corporation proposed an elevated dual-three lane urban motorway surrounding the city centre.

This was not unusual in terms of UK transport planning practice at the time: most major UK cities had similar schemes. These generated a great deal of controversy in the early 1970s, as implementation began and their scale and destructiveness became apparent. As a result, apart from Coventry (which was, owing to the blitz, probably the earliest and most fully realised), few of these urban motorway plans were completed, but some (like Glasgow, Leeds and Birmingham) built substantial parts of their planned systems, and most cities bear the scars.

In his preface Wesley Johnston describes the Belfast Urban Motorway (BUM – perhaps the acronym habit was less all-pervading back then?) as “the most audacious road scheme never to see the light of day”. However, the reality is that although the planned elevated motorway ring did not happen, the major roads that were built (notably the A12 Westlink and the M3 Lagan Bridge) carry the same DNA, and in this respect the experience of Belfast echoes that of many other British cities. For engineers, the major attraction of the book might be the evolution of the design, lovingly catalogued and profusely illustrated (including explanatory maps, diagrams and plans of exemplary quality as well as the obligatory photos of large chunks of concrete). For me as a planner, however, the really interesting bit is how the distinctive social context and governance of Northern Ireland affected the decision-making processes. On this, the book tells a fascinating tale.

The original BUM proposal followed the slightly earlier Coventry model: a tightly drawn ring-road with grade-separated free-flow junctions, catering for both local and through traffic. The city centre, around and beneath these roads was planned to be largely rebuilt, in a series of regeneration areas, with more limited distributor roads and extensive pedestrian areas within the ring. This drew on Colin Buchanan’s principle (Traffic In Towns, 1963): if we wished to accommodate our cities to free use of the car we would have to substantially rebuild them so as to separate traffic and living areas. Contrary to received opinion, he did not actually advocate such rebuilding - preferring better public transport and some restraint of cars (ideas taken up in Germany). Forgetting about the ‘if’, his alternative of rebuilding city centres with vertical separation of cars and people had greater influence on urban planning in the UK.

Coventry is half the size of Belfast, so like Newcastle upon Tyne (which is more similar in size, and inherited both plan and planning officer from Coventry) compromises rapidly became essential as the gargantuan size (and cost – £1.1 billion in 2010 prices for Belfast) of satisfying the free-flow ideal emerged. The 1973/4 oil crisis was turning point in both stories, but in Newcastle the central motorway system was abandoned after the completion of the first element (the Central Motorway East), while Belfast clung to the principle of a complete ring-road for another 30 years, albeit with elements scaled down and phased (i.e. postponed).

The reasons for this divergence seem to lie in the differences in governance. Like the Newcastle motorways, the original BUM proposal came from Belfast Corporation - a powerful all-purpose local authority - but The Troubles that started in 1969 and Direct Rule from 1972 meant that subsequent decisions fell to the UK Government. The book describes in depth an extraordinary series of public inquiries that punctuated the process. The 1969 PLI rubber-stamped BUM after only two days, but by 1972 the large-scale housing clearance implied by the ‘urban regeneration’ component had become hotly contested on both sectarian and class grounds. Later PLIs (1977, 1988, 2000) led to rather belated consideration of the potential role of public transport, the downgrading of Phase 1 to an all-purpose road (Westlink), the approval of the eight-lane Lagan Bridge and the eventual provision of a rail bridge alongside it. It now seems generally accepted that no further major road schemes will be planned for Belfast.

Contrasting with how similar pressures (without the sectarian violence) were dealt with elsewhere in the UK, three points stand out for this observer:

• The powerlessness of Belfast City Council, following Direct Rule, to assert the need for a more holistic view of the future development of the city, putting transport in its place as a means rather than an end;

• The lack of public engagement by the scheme promoters, making a series of expensive, lengthy and rancorous public inquiries the only arena for consideration of the wider impacts;

• The inability of the NI Government’s roads directorate (and its successor, the Department for Regional Development) to take a multimodal perspective of Belfast's transport problems, long after local authorities in the rest of the UK had done so;

The author asks us not to judge the BUM planners too harshly, and with the benefit of hindsight. After all, how can we be sure that if the BUM plans had been realised, Belfast would not now be a better place? There is no certain answer to this question, but it is relevant to point to Peter Hall’s comment about the symbiosis between a city and its transport systems.

“Since the industrial revolution the growth of cities had been shaped by the development of their transport facilities. But these in turn were dependent on the evolution of transport technologies. For each successive development of the technology, there was a corresponding kind of city. However, the relationship was more complex than that: it was a mutual one. The transport system shaped the growth of the city, but on the other hand the previous growth of the city shaped and in particular constrained the transport alternatives that were available. So the pattern of activities and land uses in the city, and the transport system, existed in some kind of symbiotic relationship.”

The book has a slightly wistful air about ‘what might have been’, although perhaps this is brought on more by the sheer wastefulness of the process than its outcome. Following Hall’s dictum, my own view is that Belfast after successful BUM implementation would not be like the present, but with more freely flowing traffic. The severance of the city centre from the rest of Belfast (already serious along Westlink) would have been exacerbated, and (together with the radial motorways) the impetus to car dependency, increased commuting, selective migration and resultant social polarisation even worse. The most serious adverse legacy, however, seems to be the failure to develop a public transport system (bus or rail) that could have put Belfast on to a different - and better - trajectory.

Although that failure started in 1967 with the City Corporation, the continuation of the roads bias for so many lost years must be placed at the door of central government. As well as a rigorous and readable record of the vicissitudes of BUM over a 50-year period, the book also provides a striking demonstration of the inability of central government to handle complex ‘place-making’, and the concomitant importance of local decision-making. These are lessons with great contemporary relevance, and for this reason I strongly recommend the book to urban planners, as well as those with a transport interest.

Book Review: Wesley Johnston, The Belfast Urban Motorway: Engineering Ambition And Social Conflict, Colourpoint Books, Newtownards, Jan 2014 (232 pages, £15)


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