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Glasgow Inner Ring Road
Introduction | Townhead | Woodside | Charing Cross | Kingston Bridge | South & East Flanks

The Unbuilt Section:
The South and East Flanks

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East Flank - Cable Stay Option (1980).jpg

The Inner Ring Road was a proposed motorway around the city centre of Glasgow. Only its north and west flanks were constructed, today part of the M8 motorway between Townhead Interchange and the Kingston Bridge. First mooted in Robert Bruce’s “First Planning Report” of 1945, formal proposals were not outlined until the publication of the “Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road” in 1962. This report, produced by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and Partners on behalf of Glasgow Corporation, was the first of many recommending radical solutions to solve the city’s growing traffic problem.

 

This article provides an overview of plans for the Inner Ring Road’s unbuilt south and east flanks, originally proposed for construction between 1975 and 1980. The motorway, sections of which would have been built in Glasgow Green and adjacent to the city’s historic High Street, drew considerable public criticism leading to its cancellation in the early 1980s.

Key Data

Glasgow Motorway Archive - Location Graphic

Location

Glasgow City Centre

Glasgow Motorway Archive - Designer Graphic

Consulting Engineers

Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick

Holford & Associates

Glasgow Motorway Archive - Calendar Graphic

Construction

Proposed

1975 to 1980

Glasgow Motorway Archive - Money Graphic

Estimated Cost

£20 million

(1965 estimate)

GIRR - S&E Flanks Highlighted.jpg

Initial Proposal (1963-1973)

The South and East Flanks of the Inner Ring Road were expected to fulfil two main functions. Firstly, to improve access to the south and east of Glasgow city centre whilst relieving High Street and other existing routes of traffic congestion. Secondly, to distribute traffic from the south and east of the city onto other routes such as the Hamilton, Renfrew and Ayr Motorways. Traffic studies undertaken in 1960 indicated that this would be the busier half of the ring road.

 

As with other sections of the Inner Ring Road, Glasgow Corporation intended that the South and East Flanks be built within the already approved Comprehensive Development Areas (CDAs). This provided an opportunity for the road’s designers to locate it within areas earmarked for clearance and redevelopment, reducing property acquisition costs and avoiding interactions with existing streets. With plans for extensive CDAs at Townhead, Glasgow Cross, Gallowgate and Hutchesontown it was relatively straightforward to find the space necessary for an urban motorway.

 

Plans for the Inner Ring Road were approved by the Corporation in 1963. In November of that year it was determined that priority should be given to the completion of the North and West Flanks as they offered the most immediate relief to traffic congestion and better suited the CDA programmes at Anderston, Cowcaddens and Townhead. Completion of the South and East Flanks would follow with completion planned by 1975. In 1965 it was estimated that the total cost of the works would be £20 million, equivalent to around £320 million in 2023.

Artist's impression of the south flank of the Glasgow Inner Ring Road at Laurieston (1965).

Artist's impression of the south flank of the Inner Ring Road at Laurieston from 'A Highway Plan for Glasgow', published in 1965. Tis elevated section of motorway was designed to "provide many new and exciting glimpses of the city skyline".

It was proposed that the east flank be positioned parallel to Castle Street and High Street, interchanging with the North Flank, Monkland Motorway and Springburn Expressway at Townhead. Initially the road would be placed in cutting, passing below Cathedral Street and to the west of the Cathedral. South of Duke Street the road was to have passed immediately west of the High Street Goods Stations, east of Glasgow Cross and south through Glasgow Green. This section would have been completely elevated. After crossing the River Clyde near the Tidal Weir, the route would have become the south flank, crossing the A74 at Ballater Street, followed by Eglinton Street and the railway emerging from Central Station. Positioned between Wallace Street and Cook Street, it would have interchanged with the west flank at the southern end of the Kingston Bridge. Several intermediate junctions were proposed and can be seen on the plan above. The south flank would have been elevated along its entire length.

Glasgow Cathedral Deck Study model (1970).

Glasgow Corporation's plans for a new Cathedral Precinct led to proposals for a section of the east flank to be placed in a tunnel. This model dates from around 1970 and shows the motorway passing to the west of the Barony Church.

The motorway passes through Charing Cross in a 150m long underpass. This extensive structure, which also carries the fairly complex local road system, cost £500,000 (£7 million in 2018) and has become one of the most recognisable parts of the motorway system. Junctions 17 and 18 are amongst the busiest of the M8 Inner Ring Road.

Close attention was paid to providing a high-quality aesthetic in the underpass. The walls were decorated with white mosaic tiles, the ceiling painted blue and cornice mounting light fittings provide permanent illumination. Internally illuminated signage was originally located above each portal but these were changed to reflective signs some years ago.

 

Between Sauchiehall Street and Anderston the motorway is in a cutting nicknamed “The Canyon”, this was also intended to reduce the visual impact of the road. The southern limits of the contract were alongside the Anderston slip roads.

 

Prior to reaching this point the motorway passes beneath the Charing Cross Podium,  and bridges and Bath Street and St. Vincent Street. The latter was actually part of the Kingston Bridge contract and was operational before the start of work on the Charing Cross contract.

 

The Charing Cross podium was constructed at the same time as the motorway and was always intended to form part of a building. Holford’s suggested a shopping and leisure complex with elevated walkways as a way of ‘continuing’ Sauchiehall Street across the motorway but interest was limited and thirty years passed before the Tay House office complex was built on the site. John Cullen recalled that the Corporation had been advised to complete the development themselves but they ignored this, anticipating that private developers would be lining up to pitch their ideas!

Construction of M8 motorway, Charing Cross, Glasgow (1970)

Construction of the road created many challenges for the engineers as local roads and walkways had to be kept open throughout the work. Early in the planning stages it was decided that the motorway should be constructed in a cutting to preserve the amenity of the area.

In front of the Mitchell Library, the motorway passes over the North Clyde railway line resulting in a visible hump in the road that can still be seen at this location. Charing Cross railway station was moved to its existing location, with an office development and car park on the same site.

 

The retaining walls in the canyon are formed of steel sheet piles held in place with rock anchors. In an unusual and interesting technique, concrete was cast around the piles which were then clad with precast aggregate finished panels to provide an aesthetically pleasing result. The aggregate used was referred to as “walley blue flint”.

 

On completion the section had two overhead sign gantries, though this was increased to four during the 1980s. These gantries are unusual in that their left hand side rests on top of the retaining walls rather than a steel support. In the 1990s, the gantries in front of the Mitchell Library became the first to be provided with retroreflective sign sheeting. Prior to this, the sign faces were intelligible at night if the internal illumination failed.

 

The Charing Cross section of the M8 was opened on the 4th of February 1972—the final section of the ring road to do so. There was now a continuous high-speed route between Townhead and Tradeston that removed significant traffic from the city streets and paved the way for wider connections via the Monkland and Renfrew Motorways.

 

Footage of the opening ceremony, attended by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr Gordon Campbell, can be seen below. A number of protestors opposed to the construction of the East Flank of the Inner Ring Road are also in attendance.

 

The final cost of the scheme was £6 million (£96 million at 2018 prices). The equivalent of £25 million was spent on land and property acquisition and service diversions.

Looking south along the M8 motorway towards Charing Cross, Glasgow (1975)

The motorway passes below Charing Cross and Sauchiehall Street in a 150m long underpass. This was constructed on the recommendation of Holford's who believed it would reduce the impact of the motorway its surroundings. 

Recent Developments

Aside from routine maintenance, the Charing Cross section remains largely as built. The installation of new barrier systems and modern lighting masts are some of the few visible changes, but the coming years are likely to bring more intensive mid-life refurbishment and upgrades (particularly to the underpass and retaining walls).

 

A number of high-profile proposals have been made to improve the public and visual amenity of “The Canyon” area, the most significant of which is to cover a further section of the motorway in front of the Mitchell Library. There are very different public realm priorities today, but the technical challenges that led to this idea’s rejection in the 1960s remain the same: the complexity of accommodating the covering, the railway, North Street, Newton Street and the motorway in an incredibly confined horizontal and vertical space.

 

Glasgow City Council is also considering the introduction of cycleways and other active travel projects to improve links between the city centre and West End that will require alterations to the layout of the local road system around the Sauchiehall Street and Woodlands Road areas.

Early morning on the M8 motorway at Charing Cross (November 2020).

Charing Cross footbridge continues to offer stunning views of the M8 and the north of the city, fifty years after its completion. The area around the motorway is likely to be considerably redeveloped throughout the 2020s.

Charing Cross: A Retrospective

The consulting architects were particularly aware of the visual impact of the Inner Ring Road at Charing Cross and insisted the road should be constructed and finished to the highest possible standard. Their efforts are reflected in the extraordinarily expensive decision to reject a simple elevated viaduct in favour of cuttings and tunnels that protected the cityscape and prevented community severance; the extensive planting and landscaping and the use of high-quality finishes for retaining walls and other parts of the roadway. The result is an urban motorway with a more pleasing aesthetic than its equivalent in cities like Birmingham and Leeds.

 

However, the experience of building the Charing Cross section could be a textbook illustration of the reasons that urban motorways began to fall out of favour. The complexity of designing such roads, the extraordinary cost and disruption of building them and the inability of extensive and expensive mitigation works to fully ameliorate the negative impact on people and neighbourhoods cannot be ignored.

Aerial photo of the M8 motorway near Charing Cross, Glasgow (Mid-1970s)

Many new developments were completed soon after the motorway including the Elmbank Tower & the headquarters of Strathclyde Regional Council. An empty Charing Cross podium can be seen parallel to Sauchiehall Street.

The truth is that the Charing Cross section may have escaped significant criticism during the planning stages, but the experience of the construction phase irretrievably damaged public support for the entire Inner Ring Road. The sheer scale of the disruption involved in clearing the site and then the radical change in the character of this part of the city divides opinion to this day.

 

Deciding not to complete the Inner Ring Road was not without costs. Congestion, the chief complaint most people levy against today’s M8, is largely a consequence of the constrained two-lane section at Charing Cross not being designed to carry cross-city traffic—the designers had intended the East and South flanks and a second motorway bridge across the Clyde for that.

 

In many ways, the challenges faced by the mid-century Corporation are not unlike those faced by the Council today. Both authorities knew they needed to facilitate new ways of moving around the city and that convenient links, especially to the city centre, are essential. Excessive use of motor vehicles was also a concern even in the 1960s, with measures to discourage city traffic included in the Inner Ring Road plans. Some of these ideas, like multi-storey car parks at the edge of the city centre, near junctions with the M8 (like the one at Charing Cross, which also includes a railway station) were innovative. Half-century later, as a Low-Emission Zone is introduced in Glasgow, they seem more relevant than ever.

View of the M8 motorway from St. George's Road, Glasgow (Mid-1970s)

The Charing Cross section of the Inner Ring Road remains controversial. The demolition of many old buildings divided opinion, and despite the efforts of the engineers to mitigate the effects of the motorway, many say it negatively impacted upon the local community.

Yes, several fine buildings were lost in the name of progress—they were in many cities in that era. No, nobody would consider driving a motorway through Charing Cross today. The project was a product of its era.

 

The planners of the day were acting with pride and optimism, taking on an extraordinarily difficult task they believed was necessary to prepare their home for the future. Locals like John Cullen, who grew up near St. Georges Cross and worked as an engineer for Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick on the Inner Ring Road, were determined to leave something better for their children than they themselves had.

 

The foresight and ambition of these people left a legacy we often take for granted: some of the shortest cross-city journey times in the UK, the pedestrianisation of Sauchiehall Street, Buchanan Street and Argyll Street and traffic levels in the city centre that remain considerably lower than before the motorway was built.

 

Maybe it’s time we showed the M8 a little love?

From the Archive

Documents

This article was first published in December 2020. Updated July 2023.

Related Content

Next

Highway Over the Clyde: The Kingston Bridge

Previous

Completing the North Flank: The Woodside Section

Other Inner Ring Road Articles

The Story of Glasgow's Inner Ring Road

Breaking Ground: Townhead Interchange

>  The Unbuilt Section: The South & East Flanks

Connecting Routes

M8 Motorway

Galleries

Charing Cross

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