The Glasgow Inner Ring Road (IRR) was planned as an urban motorway around the city centre. Only the North and West Flanks were constructed, and today these carry the M8 motorway through the city. The IRR corridor, as constructed, was designed by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick and outlined in the "Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road" published in 1962. However its origins lie in the mid-1940s.
This page considers the West Flank of the route, which can be found between St. George's Cross (J17) and Tradeston (J20). It was constructed between 1967 and 1972.
LOCATION: Glasgow, M8 Junctions 17-20
Work Started: 1st August 1969 (site clearance and utility diversion from 1966)
Completed: 4th February 1972
Designer: WA Fairhurst & Partners (Holfords as Consulting Architects)
Contractor: Whatlings (Civil Engineering) Ltd.
Cost: £6 million (75% grant provided by Scottish Office) £96million at 2017 prices.
KINGSTON BRIDGE & APPROACHES:
Work Started: 15th May 1967
Completed: 26th June 1970
Designer: WA Fairhurst & Partners (Holfords as Consulting Architects)
Contractor: Logan & Marples Ridgeway
Cost: £11 million (75% grant provided by Scottish Office) £185million at 2017 prices.
OVERALL LENGTH: 1 mile
The West Flank carries the M8 Glasgow Inner Ring Road (IRR) around the west of the city centre. It runs in a corridor from Great Western Road, through Charing Cross and over the Kingston Bridge. Today, it can be found between junctions 17 and 20.
Like the North Flank, the stretch was split into two contracts; The Kingston Bridge & Approaches and Charing Cross Section. The route corridor follows that first outlined in Robert Bruce’s “First Planning Report” from 1945. Set between the steep, rising ground of Garnethill and Park Circus there was limited scope for the motorway to be constructed away from Charing Cross.
W.A Fairhurst & Partners, who had been appointed to develop a design for the Kingston Bridge in 1962, had their commission extended to include both sections. The main features of the route had already been laid out in Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick’s (SWK) “Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road” (see main article), and Holford & Associates were appointed as Consulting Architects as they had been on all new Corporation roads projects to date.
Index page for the IRR, outlining development of the route from the 1940s until 1980.
Index page for the M8 with links to contract pages, construction information and a route overview.
Stretching from Townhead Interchange to St. George's Cross, the North Flank of the IRR was built in two stages.
The South & East Flanks of the IRR proved controversial from the outset and were ultimately cancelled.
WA Fairhurst & Partners was responsible for the design and procurement of this contract with preparatory works carried out throughout the late 1960s. The construction contract was let to Whatlings (Civil Engineering) Ltd with work commencing on 1st August 1969. Demolition works began during 1966 and in addition to the Grand Hotel mentioned above, included the Elders Furniture Showrooms, Charing Cross railway station and the St Andrews Ambulance building.
Early in the design process, consideration was given to constructing the section on an elevated viaduct. This would have avoided the need for costly utility diversions, but was ruled out due to the adverse visual impact on Charing Cross. Similarly, it was decided to place a short section of the motorway in an underpass where it passes Charing Cross Mansions. This was recommended by Holfords as a way of mitigating the effect of the motorway on the area in general.
St George's Cross (the present day Junction 17) marks the northern extent of the West Flank. Located in the north west corner of the IRR, the interchange is small and compact, yet requires several overbridges, walkways, retaining walls and sign gantries. Travelling westbound the road is briefly dual two lane, following the earlier drop to Great Western Road. A third lane re-joins from Phoenix Road, becoming an eventual drop to Anderston (J19). The same situation exists on the eastbound carriageway with two lanes provided for through traffic and lane gains and drops for traffic looking to leave the motorway. The eastbound off-slip to J17 allows for access to St. George’s Road, as well as providing a free flow link to Great Western Road. It was originally intended that the slip road would pass under Great Western Road, connecting to Phoenix Road at St. George’s Cross. This was scaled back on cost grounds, resulting in several signal controlled junctions. The hard shoulders along this stretch are narrow and barely 3m wide in places.
The Charing Cross section remains the most controversial of the IRR contracts constructed. Although not attracting considerable criticism during the planning stages, public opinion was divided following the start of site clearance and during the construction phases as the character of the area was radically altered.
The demolition of the Grand Hotel at the corner of Woodlands Crescent and Sauchiehall Street, continues to divide opinion over 50 years later. The Charing Cross section was procured using traditional roads powers, including Compulsory Purchase Orders. The other contracts, being part of Comprehensive Development Areas, were taken forward under planning legislation.
John Cullen (a key part of the SWK IRR team) described this section of the IRR as being the “most technically challenging” of all the contracts. Multiple local routes converge on the Charing Cross area. Linking these to the motorway, as well as the construction of new parallel distributor roads, posed a particular engineering conundrum.
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 an iconic part of the motorway system. On the eastbound carriageway, the underpass splits, with the J17 off-slip in a separate box. Junctions 17 and 18 are amongst the busiest of the M8 IRR. Like other parts of the system, close attention was paid to the aesthetic of the underpass. The walls were decorated with white mosaic tiles, the ceiling painted blue and cornice mounting light fittings provide permanent illumination. Originally, internally illuminated signage in the style of Glasgow sign gantries was located above each portal. These were changed to reflective sign some years ago.
The southern extents of the Charing Cross contract were located in line with the Anderston slip roads. Prior to reaching this point the motorway passes beneath the Charing Cross Podium, Bath Street bridge and St. Vincent Street bridge. It is dual three lane motorway at this stage as detailed above. The St. Vincent Street bridge was constructed as part of the Kingston Bridge contract and operational prior to the start of works. The podium was constructed at the same time as the motorway with the intention that it would host a shopping and leisure complex with elevated walkways. It was recommended by Holfords as a way of continuing Sauchiehall Street across the motorway as it once had. Interest in the development was low, and it was not until the early 1990s that Tay House was constructed, by which time it was known as the “Bridge to Nowhere”. John Cullen recalled that the Corporation was advised to complete the development themselves. They ignored this advice, expecting that private developers would be lining up to pitch their ideas!
In front of the Mitchell Library, the motorway passes over the North Clyde railway line and a visible hump in the road can be seen at this location. Charing Cross railway station was relocated to its existing location as part of the motorway upgrade. An interesting feature through the “canyon” are the retaining walls. The walls are formed from steel sheet piles held in place with rock anchors. Concrete was cast around the piles which are clad with precast aggregate finished panels to provide an aesthetically pleasing design. 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, sign faces were illegible at night if the internal illumination failed.
The Charing Cross section of the M8 opened on the 4th of February 1972, the final section of the IRR to do so. This provided a continuous route around the north and west sides of the city centre, unlocking the benefits of the other contracts and removing through traffic from city streets. The opening ceremony was attended by the Secretary of State for Scotland, Mr Gordon Campbell, and footage of the event can be seen below. Around twenty protestors opposed to the construction of the East Flank of route were also in attendance. The protest was organised by students from the Glasgow School of Art who were unhappy at the way in which the motorway had affected Charing Cross. They wanted to see the section in front of the Mitchell Library covered over. The final cost of the scheme was £6 million (or £96 million in 2017 prices). The equivalent of £25 million was spent on land & property acquisition and service diversions.
In a rare design failing for the Glasgow motorway system, changes had to be made to the footway network around Charing Cross within a year of its completion. Although a network of walkways and a footbridge had been provided, these proved inadequate for those pedestrians walking to/from Woodlands Road and St. George’s Road. This led to people crossing the motorway eastbound on slip and other busy roads, to the surprise of the Corporation and its consultants.
Changes were made to provide a continuous footway from Sauchiehall Street to Woodlands Road via a series of signalised crossing points. These remain in place today. Visible signs of the changes can still be seen, with the base of a high mast lighting column awkwardly cut in half. The images below highlight the changes.
There have been few changes to the Charing Cross section in the last fifty years with only minor routine maintenance activities undertaken. This may change in the coming decade with several projects likely to affect its character. The highest profile of these is a project to cover an additional section of the motorway in front of the Mitchell Library. This would provide an open space and attempt to mitigate further the impact of the motorway on its surroundings. The proposal faces some engineering and technical challenges due to the presence of the railway line mentioned above. The railway limited the ability of the engineers to provide an additional length of underpass at the time. The proposal is also likely to impact upon North Street and Newton Street which currently act as crucial parallel distributor roads.
Given the motorway is reaching mid-life, there are likely to be large scale refurbishment works required in the coming years. These may see improvements to the underpass and the retaining walls which have become worn after years of use. In recent years new barrier systems and high mast lighting columns have been installed.
Glasgow City Council is considering the introduction of cycle ways and other active travel projects to improve links between the city centre and west end. These could result in slight alterations to the layout of the local road system around the Sauchiehall Street and Woodlands Roads areas. Some areas adjacent to the motorway have suffered from lack of maintenance in recent years, particularly at Garnethill. Vegetation has become overgrown leading to general untidiness. Views from the Hill Street Viewpoint over the motorway and the north west of the city have become obscured, ruining what was once a key feature of the motorway project.
There is no doubt that the Charing Cross section of the M8 is controversial, and fifty years later it continues to divide opinion. It is an excellent example of the effect that urban motorways have on their environment and why they fell out of favour by the mid-1970s. The busier they are, the noisier they are, and this can have an adverse effect on the lives of those nearby without considerable mitigatory measures.
It is easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to make statements about how “badly planned” the road was or to question the motives of those involved, however it is important to consider the project within the context of the time. The Corporation was aware that the city had to modernise if it was to successfully transition from a dependence on the declining heavy industries of the past. Improved transport links were key to that, and the Corporation was keen that access to facilities within the city centre, i.e. for business, shopping or leisure be as convenient as possible. This did not mean allowing for unconstrained traffic growth and measures were introduced as a result of the Inner Ring Road and Highway Plan reports to discourage through traffic. On-street parking controls and multi-storey car parks at the edge of the city centre were introduced to reduce traffic in the central area.
For the north west of the city centre to benefit from the improved roads, it was necessary to keep the Inner Ring Road corridor as close to it as possible. The topography of the surrounding areas limited a consideration of alternative corridors, and the Corporation was clear that the road should not impact on Park Circus or Kelvingrove Park. There was also no question of Charing Cross or St. George’s Mansions being demolished. Much more consideration was given to the impact of the motorway on the urban environment than in other UK cities, and this shows clearly. As noted above, the road was placed in cutting below the existing ground level when it would have been cheaper and less disruptive to construct an elevated structure. Similarly, the provision of the underpass in front of Charing Cross shows that the consulting architects were particularly aware of the impact the road may have. They were keen to reduce community severance. High quality finishes to retaining walls and other parts of the roadway ensured a far more pleasing aesthetic than on equivalent roads in Birmingham or Leeds. This was provided at considerable additional cost, not because it had to be, but because those involved desired the road to be completed to as high a standard as possible. The removal of through traffic from Sauchiehall Street allowed for it to be transformed into a pedestrianised precinct only months after the motorway was completed. The benefits of that are still felt today, with traffic in the city centre still considerably lower than before the M8 was built.
Questions are often asked about why the Charing Cross section was built with only two lanes for through-traffic. The answer to this is fairly simple; the South and East Flanks were intended to take the vast bulk of traffic. The cancellation of these meant that this section of the M8 became very quickly overloaded as traffic growth accelerated.
A handful of fine buildings were lost to the road, including the Grand Hotel and many high-quality tenements. To the planners (and many politicians) of the 1960s, these buildings represented an era which should be left behind . They believed that change was essential and so it was easy to discard them. To the engineers such as John Cullen, who had grown up near St. Georges Cross, this high-quality road was their contribution to making the city a better place. It is certain that a motorway would not be constructed through Charing Cross today. However, it is important to remember the efforts of the engineers and architects in ensuring what was constructed was as good as it could be. Architecturally this section of the IRR has many features which should be considered an important part of the city’s post-war heritage. The road is unique to Glasgow. Maybe it’s time it had a little love?
The comprehensive roads report for Glasgow Corporation which was published in 1965.
Timeline of key events & milestones in the development and construction of the Glasgow motorway system.
The history of Glasgow’s network of motorways and dual carriageways can be traced back to the 1940s. The History page provides all the details.