Photo By D J Norton

Inside the Inner Ring Road

Notes contributed by Peter Walker, who worked on the detail design of the ring road in the 1950s.

1 - Pre-World War 2 origins

It is said that the Birmingham ring road concept dates back to World War I, when the motor vehicle had proved itself as a reliable means of transport, and at least civilians had time to think about building in peacetime. After World War 1, Parliament had new powers encouraging local authorities to build new ‘homes for heroes’ in new dormitory suburbs, in Birmingham’s case, largely outside the old city boundaries. These would be connected by wide roads to factories and workplaces within the town, ultimately extending into the city centre. The city’s transport infrastructure became a major element in future planning, for which Sir Herbert Humphries was responsible as City Engineer and Surveyor from 1919. Birmingham mushroomed for the next 20 years, but in 1936 there were still over 38 000 back-to-back houses, 13 000 houses without a separate water supply and 51 000 without separate water closets. Five planning schemes were approved in 1937, and it was hoped in that 10 000 slum houses could be dealt with in five years. By 1939, over 50 000 council dwellings had been built on former agricultural land, together with over 54 000 privately-owned houses, and over half the city’s population now lived in the new outer ring of the city. The first municipal multi-storey flats - at Emily Street - were completed in 1939.

Meanwhile politicians, planners and engineers occupied themselves devising plans for a future road network to serve the whole of the city. Rather than demolishing the established city centre, a heroic civic centre redevelopment was proposed to back up the other town centre facilities, and it made sense to build a ring road to encircle this hub. A middle and outer ring road were also envisaged, along the lines of the Outer Circle and Inner Circle bus routes which were opened in the late 1920s. Following the depression of the early 1930s, interest in these road plans receded, but the new City Engineer, Herbert John Baptista Manzoni, who had succeeded Sir Herbert Humphries as City Engineer and Surveyor in 1935, was not a man to let opportunities slip by.

2 - Wartime planning

The outbreak of World War 2 put thoughts of new roads into abeyance, but as soon as the air raids ceased it was time to blow the dust off old documents and bring them up to date. Under Manzoni’s direction, five giant slum clearance areas were already identified by 1941. But his pre-occupation was the creation of a new road system, which he approached as if it were a military operation. Given the target, methods had to be devised of achieving it and all opposition had to be overcome. His enthusiasm for his pet project was infectious, and he was able to inject his staff and most of his political masters with the same heroic confidence. At the time he was also seen as visionary, although there were some serious flaws in the ideas he preached so forcefully - of which more anon.
During the dark days of World War 2, outline plans for the new road system were prepared, each roundabout junction being designed in some detail. The long-term goal was a network of high-speed roads for motor traffic, totally segregated from pedestrians, who would be diverted by circuitous ramps and steps to subways or overbridges, in order to prevent them from hindering the motor traffic. A master of the ancient art of ‘spin’, Manzoni ensured that the proposals were well publicised as part of the heroic Birmingham of the future. The implied argument was that Birmingham had suffered so much war damage that it was best to demolish any remaining obstacles to ‘redevelopment’. In fact this was not so, as the number of bombed sites later taken over for the ring road development can be counted on one hand, while vast swathes of substantial Victorian and Edwardian commercial property were swept away. Models of each junction were made and exhibited to demonstrate the impact on the town. This was considerable, as almost every property near the road system would have to be replaced or modified beyond recognition. In order to strengthen his case, Birmingham was repeatedly referred to as ‘the city of the motor car’.

3 - Post-war preparations

When the war was finally over, Manzoni was ready to pounce and, within months, the draft Birmingham Corporation Bill 1946 was deposited before Parliament. This included powers to improve the central area of the city, water, gas and electricity supply and the provision of better health and local government. The Deposited Plan showed the main  feature of the central area proposals was the new Inner Ring Road, which can be seen on this link:
But post-war elation brought an unexpected change with the election of a labour government which nationalised former municipal undertakings such as gas, water, electricity, some welfare and health services, and took a more active role in the development of new housing and schools. As a result the municipality lost some power, although it was given extra powers through planning laws to control new development. Within the Corporation, those powers were held by Manzoni. A new generation of Labour council members were elected, but their enthusiasm was tempered by a desperate shortage of cash, materials and even labour. Building the new council estates was the first priority, initially as infill on bombed sites, some with prefab housing, and the road works would have to follow.
Over the next 15 years the road scheme was worked up and modified for various reasons. The most significant change was the exclusion of Colmore Row from the widened roads, which would have razed most of the buildings on that thoroughfare. Although the road proposals were being designed at the same time as many commercial redevelopment schemes, they took much longer to implement. Many drastically changed the character of the city centre. As I remember, the Martineau Street development for example was initiated by private developers, and the council‘s role was one of passive support. As developer of the road scheme and the planning authority at the same time, Manzoni was in effect landowner, gamekeeper and poacher in one.

It was during the 1950s that many other social changes germinated - some (like increased private car ownership and motorway construction) were closely related to the city‘s road proposals, but other changes (for example, consolidation of the retail trade, decline of manufacturing industry and growth in home entertainment such as television) still influenced the development of the road proposals. To a certain extent, the new roads facilitated the changes.

During the 1950s, Birmingham was controlled by a labour city council which sought to continue the Attlee style of government at a local level. Manzoni was held in great esteem by his immediate political controllers such as Frank Price (also later knighted), Chairman of the Public Works Committee and later Leader of the Council. But there were power struggles within the city council, one of which was to reduce the power of some of the council’s committees and their chief officers. For this reason, a new City Architect’s Department was set up in 1952 to take over the design and construction of buildings. Manzoni had no interest in architecture, although he had had some qualified architects on his staff, and most of their work tended to be rather undistinguished and in a coarse neo-classical style, which did not compare well with work in nearby Coventry, for example. So Manzoni lost his housing architects, but retained his town planning powers, so that he still controlled much of the substance of the buildings.

4 - Realisation

By 1955 funding for first phase of the inner ring road was imminent, and a start was made on contract drawings. At that time I was a newly-qualified architect working in the General Section of the City Architect’s Department, and was given a few projects advising on the ’architectural finishes’ of the project. The first one was the least interesting, consisting of a design for handrail balustrade and stair finishes on the bridge over Dudley Street which carried the new Smallbrook Ringway. Next came the subway on the line of Hurst Street beneath the ringway. The idea here was to create the feeling of an underground street rather than a corridor, and it was at least 20 feet wide, with a row of columns along the middle. In order to add to its interest (and to earn a modicum of rent), showcases lined the walls. It also contained Birmingham’s first post-war public conveniences, which involved some research and development, as this was to be a prototype for later projects. I was later responsible for moving the statue of Nelson from the Bull Ring to an absurd location in the middle of the widened Moor Street - this involved designing a new plinth and plaque. There was a minimum of communication with my engineering colleagues, whose only concern was getting it built. I left Birmingham in March 1959 to try my luck in London, and saw the completed ring road only as an outsider. My successors at the City Architect’s office must have given similar advice on the rest of the inner ring road. I read in ’Private Eye’ that some of my engineering colleagues whom I knew quite well got into serious trouble during the construction of the M6 motorway through Bromford and Gravelly Hill.
But my jobs were only were only cosmetic ones, and I was fortunate to become involved in two bigger projects which were associated with the ring road. The first was an update of the pre-war proposals for a new Civic Centre along and off Broad Street, which had the same neo-classical character as contemporary fascist and communist projects. My sectional head had worked up a scheme to the satisfaction of the new city architect which was less formal and regimented, and gave some flexibility. The area of this project included the future ring road and its junction with Broad Street, and there was still time to consider changing the layout there. This involved me in work with the design engineers, who were of a different calibre, although most of them appeared to be brain-washed by Manzoni. But I did find the head, James McMorran, and his right-hand man Ted Youell both very approachable, and we got on well. We looked at all sorts of alternatives, and came up with a solution which appeared at the time to be the best of the bunch. As it happened, I left Birmingham long before that bit of the road was finished, and the final design was different from what I remember doing. Nearly fifty years on, the area was developed quite differently from our plans, but this was expected. Birmingham got some good things out of it, like the new Repertory Theatre and the Symphony Hall, International National Indoor Arena, Hyatt International Hotel, and Brindleyplace development.
My other major involvement was on the Bull Ring redevelopment. The confused terms of reference here were to design a new indoor fish and meat market, together with shopping development and a Midland Red bus station, all within the constraints of the future Inner Ring Road. This was meant to be a kind of feasibility study, which would be put to private developers. From the start the scheme was hamstrung by the geometry of the ring road. Although it lasted nearly 40 years, the development  - like the ring road that tore through it - was inhuman and unloved. I’m not totally sold on the new project - certainly not on the purpose of the buildings - but visually it is quite an improvement.

5 - Reflection

At the time, we had been primed into believing that the ring road was essential to our future recovery prosperity, and that the loss of some of the older properties was inevitable or even desirable. In 1959 the Birmingham Mail published a 32-page supplement entitled ‘The New Birmingham’ and which was eagerly read and reprinted. Between drawings and photographs of models, the text proclaimed that Manzoni, ‘concerned about the sea of slumdom which encompassed the city centre, had the vision of sweeping it all away in one operation’. But when the new buildings and the road materialised many people were horrified at what they had let happen.

So to the $64 000 dollar question: “What was wrong with the Ring Road?”
There is an exhaustive essay on the subject by David Parker and Paul Long, entitled ‘The mistakes of the past’ was published by Manchester University Press, which can be seen on the following web site:

For what they are worth, here my comments.

The priorities of the plan

The stated objective was to build roads on which vehicles could travel quickly and safely, without hindrance from pedestrian or stopping traffic. Traffic signals were to be avoided in favour of space-hungry roundabouts at road junctions. The remaining spaces between the roads were available for developers to do their best to build at a profit. As planning authority, Manzoni gave developers a free hand. He was not concerned with what it would be like as a place to live in.

The plight of the pedestrian

Although he was occasionally one himself, Manzoni hated pedestrians, as revealed when referring to the Council decision not to proceed with legislation to make it illegal for pedestrians to cross the urban freeway at surface level near subways: ‘It became necessary therefore to consider the substitution of attraction for compulsion in order to achieve a carriageway free of pedestrians.’  Like a certain prime minister, he saw the issue of whether such legislation would stand up in law as irrelevant.

Car parking

Looking back, my impression is that Manzoni just hadn’t thought about it. The inside lane of the ring road was originally envisaged as a parking area, and some public car parks were built, always formidable in scale and appearance, and not always very practicable. At first, there were so many vacant plots resulting from demolition for the new road, that they could be used to satisfy the need. For the Bull Ring development in 1964, he produced what a spokesman called  ‘a new concept in car parking‘, in which drivers were left their car and keys with an attendant who drove it into a semi-automated lift to a storage point. After a year of dissatisfaction, the scheme was abandoned.

Public transport

Manzoni’s approach to public transport seems to have been that it was a necessary blot on the roadscape to cater for the needs of the disadvantaged. As under 10% of commuters drove a car at the time, this was a very biassed view. Working of the ring road in the mid 50s, we consulted Midland Red on their route alignment, headways and stopping places, but negotiations with the City Transport Department were conducted at chief officer and member level. We were not allowed to talk to BCT officers, which I thought was appalling. In practice the ring road was a hindrance to buses and their passengers, as the routes were lengthened and delayed by diversions, and many stops were relocated away from the natural traffic centres. I would not give 1 out of 10 on this score.

6 - Conclusion

Manzoni is often referred to today as ‘formidable’. After I left, when he was president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, he had less time for Birmingham, it was known at the Institution the ’Friday was Sir Herbert’s day for Birmingham‘. As a junior officer I had very little to do with him, but I always found him more courteous than my colleagues gave him credit for. He certainly had a vast and powerful empire at what was later named Baskerville House, and he was good at running rings round people too.