History of Road Management

Heavy waggon, in use in the UK during the 17th century

The first attempt to provide a coherent framework for maintaining rural roads in the United Kingdom dates from well over four hundred years ago. Prior to this, maintenance was carried out, particularly of bridges, by the religious orders, but their suppression during the Reformation had resulted in the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. This new legislation, relying on coercion and imaginative penalties for noncompliance, was remarkably inadequate and had to be subjected to constant tinkering for the following two hundred years. Unfortunately, since previous clauses were rarely repealed,  constant accretions made it increasingly  inapplicable. Maintenance was a local responsibility  (the manager being unpaid and changed every year, probably to his relief but hardly a recipe for competence), and relied heavily on contributions in kind,  which were rarely forthcoming. Subsequently, attempts were made to professionalise management, and convert in-kind contributions to a financial levy on property owners. However, technical knowledge remained totally lacking until the middle of the eighteenth century and efforts to prevent damage by  controlling the weight, size, numbers of horses and design of vehicles were easily and ingeniously evaded. For example, when a very wide wheel was called for to  spread the load,  the owners simply made them convex.

That the users of the road were rarely those responsible for maintaining them was a constant source of friction. The problem was at least partially solved by the widespread privatization of main roads during the 18th century. This resulted in the creation of a multitude of trusts, each providing capital to improve a given link and then raising through tolls the funds to  maintain the road and at the same time assure a healthy profit.  Aided by advances in road design, this resulted in a quantum jump in levels of service on many roads.  By the beginning of the 19th century most cities in England were within a long days’ journey from London. However, tolls were high, making travel expensive. Corruption was everywhere, from the enormous payoffs to politicians to obtain a charter for the trust in the first place to the misappropriation of revenues by toll collectors and trustees, with the result that little was left to spend on maintenance.

The entire structure came crashing down after the 1830’s, when the railway began to elbow out stagecoaches for intercity travel. Attempts to introduce self-propelled vehicles, although demonstrated to be feasible, having failed because of fierce opposition from railway promotors and stockholders, rural roads fell into picturesque disrepair until the invasion of the bicycle towards 1880.  Cyclists, largely drawn from the urban middle classes, could exert considerable political pressure to build smooth roads free of mud and dust and they did so. During the early 20th century, rational systems of regional and national management, based on co-financing mechanisms such as matching grants, were put in place and ready for the second and definitive invasion of rural tranquillity by the motor car.