London's mayor wants to start putting major roads into tunnels

Before and after: the A13 at Barking. Image: TfL.

Roads! Everyone loves roads, right? With their cars and their tarmac and their air pollution and that. Vroom vrooooooooooooom.

One man who has definitely decided we should be building more roads is London mayor Boris Johnson. This week he's in Boston and New York, because reasons, and has decided now is the perfect time to announce a clever plan to start burying bits of London’s trunk roads.

This is not as a crazy and idea as it might initially sound. They did it in Boston, byreplacing a six-lane elevated highway with an eight-line underground one. They're doing it in Hamburg, where the autobahn is being replaced with a park. They did it in that episode of Pigeon Street, too.

Sticking big roads in the ground has a number of advantages. It can reconnect neighbourhoods currently severed by main roads. It can make cities more attractive, if only because almost anything is more attractive than a great big bloody motorway.


And it can free up land for other uses – housing, office space, parkland, and so on. That, we suspect, is one of the reasons London's government is currently leaping on the idea. Not only does this mean more space to cope with London's population growth, but, with land values so high, the development opportunities will make any project a lot easier to pay for.

This morning City Hall said in a press release that it had examined "more than 70 locations... where the introduction of tunnels, fly-unders and decking could deliver benefits". That number looks a bit optimistic, though, and only five have been identified as "suitable for further feasibility work"; and several of these don’t sound terribly ambitious.

Nonetheless, here they are:

1) "Decking or a mini-tunnel" over the North Circular in New Southgate;

2) Turning the Hammersmith flyover on the A4 into the Hammersmith tunnel;

3) A "small fly-under" on the A316 at Chalker's Corner, where it meets the South circular near Mortlake;

4) "Decking of the A3 in Tolworth";

5) "A mini tunnel of the A13 in Barking Riverside", to connect one of London's biggest potential housing developments with something that resembles civilisation.

Here's a map, on which we've essentially highlighted the proposed developments in red crayon. (In an attempt to make them visible, our versions are almost certainly bigger than the real thing would be.)

To give a sense of the full scope of Boris' petrolhead ambitions, we've also included the three proposed East London river crossings: the Silvertown Tunnel, and Gallion's Reach and Belvedere bridges.

The really big one, though, is one Johnson has been talking up for a year: the proposal to create a whole new ringroad underground at a cost of £30bn.

What that would look like is not exactly clear. This is the version that was floating around when TfL first broached the idea last spring...

Image: TfL.

...but that doesn't seem to fit with TfL's response to a Freedom of Information request made by the blogger known as Boris Watch. That suggested the tunnel would be 70km long – roughly twice the length of the network shown in the map above. It also lists 10 junctions, including one labelled A10/A503, and another A23/A205, which strongly suggests that the loop would go as far north as Seven Sisters and as far south as Streatham Hill.

If that's accurate, then it seems likely the final tunnel would look a lot more like this. (We've labelled the junctions included in the modelling.)

The bottom line is that we don't actually know; neither, we suspect, does Transport for London.

But what is clear is that, for the first time in a generation, expanding London's road network is seriously back on the agenda – for better or worse.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.