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M Zero – Glasgow’s road to nowhere


GLASGOW is unique among Britain’s major cities in having a motorway running practically through its centre. But this vital infrastructure is soon to be curbed by Net Zero policy. A Green Party proposal to reduce the speed limit of the busiest motorway in Scotland to 30mph was passed by Glasgow City Council, which has written to Transport Scotland to take the desired action. 

I am just old enough to remember Glasgow before the M8. My family lived 30 miles down the Clyde and to get to the city from the south, the main thoroughfare was the A8. This clogged artery took cars and lorries through the east end on London Road, crossing the Clyde to pass through the infamous Gorbals, and then snaking around the shipyards of Govan before heading towards Renfrew and beyond. 

This arduous route was superseded in the early 1970s by the motorway, which skirted the city centre. This was good for motorists, and for the city economy, but it had adverse social impact. As well as swathes of housing lost to the roadbuilders in inner-city districts such as Cowcaddens, working-class areas to the north were on the wrong side of the fence. To some extent, I agree with the City Council’s recent assessment: ‘The construction of the M8 tore through established residential communities of Glasgow, and to this day acts as a scar in the urban fabric of the city.’

However, the motorway compounded rather than caused the demise of the Second City of Empire. Townhead, for example, was heavily occupied at the St Rollox locomotive works, but that was mostly redundant when the excavators arrived. Thirty-storey blocks of flats were built at Sighthill, surrounded by open space where hitherto bustling streets of homes, pubs, shops and churches faded into memory. The scene was as grey as the prevailing weather. 

On the western end of Argyle Street, half a mile from Central Station, the historic Anderston Cross was cleared by the wrecking ball. The new shopping mall was a concrete carbuncle that failed to attract custom, as M8 traffic sped noisily overhead on ascent to the Kingston Bridge. Planners have a predisposition to throwing babies out with the bathwater. 

In my childhood I had a morbid fascination with the tower blocks that were so prevalent in the west of Scotland. From a nearby hill I gazed to the east over Greenock, known as the Hong Kong of the West for its high-rise flats built on the hillsides, and in the distance was the concretopolis of Glasgow. These structures were built with Utopian socialist enthusiasm by Labour councils, and they seemed modern for a while before they were tarnished by reality. 

While at the Central College of Commerce in the 1980s, I had a panoramic view of northern Glasgow, its towering heights including the notorious Red Road flats. Most of the point-and-slab blocks of the Sixties and Seventies have since been demolished, lasting for a fraction of the time of the sandstone tenements they replaced. Today, the landscape has more gaps than buildings, although depopulation has recently been reversed by mass immigration. 

Idealistic city planners want to reconnect the city centre to the outer areas. They think that the eight-lane M8 can be transformed from an impenetrable barrier to a vibrant boulevard, but this is wishful thinking. This rainy, bitterly windswept environment is hardly amenable to al fresco dining and street theatre. 

The real motive for slowing the motorway is not cultural regeneration but the global clamour for Net Zero. Councillors may be missing a trick here. Instead of stifling the city’s expressway, they could opt to complete an orbital motorway around the city centre. This asphalt moat could demarcate a carbon-free Smart City, with fifteen-minute neighbourhoods devoid of petrol-engine vehicles. To fulfil their dreams, they could erect signs at the motorway exits stating ‘Abandon cars, all ye who enter here’. But it’s bad enough that the M8 will soon become M Zero – the wrong solution to the wrong problem. 

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