At 28 miles, the M65 is hardly the longest motorway in the United Kingdom. In 2011 it turned 30 years old, so it isn't even the oldest. Despite all this, it proves itself to have an absolutely fascinating history that is fraught with political wrangling, local controversies, and a number of firsts.
The story begins, as these stories often do, in Lancashire immediately after the Second World War…
- 1 1949-69: Early Days
- 2 1969-74: A Motorway is Born
- 3 1974-80: The Public, the Secretary of State, and the Demise
- 4 1980-87: Bridging the Gap
- 5 1988-97: The Southern Bypass versus Swampy
- 6 1997-today: Keeping Things Moving
- 7 Conclusion
1949-69: Early Days
A quick glance at the famous 1949 document, the Road Plan for Lancashire, shows no improved roads running east-west through the Calder Valley. Whilst it seems a rather glaring omission with the A679/A646 corridor forming a major trunk road through the region, it is worth noting that during the Second World War the North East Lancashire cotton towns were experiencing something of a renaissance following the depression of the 1930s as military uniforms were required amongst other manufactured goods for the war effort. Therefore the principal traffic flows were to and from Manchester, not Preston. However, the resurgence in cotton did not last long after the war, and the decline of the cotton towns began once again in earnest during the 1950s.
Sir James Drake realised that improved road links were required in a report from 1960 which, amongst other things, proposed massive improvements to what is now the A6068 corridor to provide by-passes of Nelson and Fence. This scheme was duly completed but it still only provided single carriageway roads and did not connect well with the A56 towards Manchester, a chronically over-capacity single carriageway route which was mostly urban with 30 mph speed limits. The 1949 plan had addressed the need to upgrade this route significantly but logistically this was to be a problem as the A56 ran across hills and through valleys, none of which were particularly free of development.
In the late 1960s, a programme of housing development was proposed in the Preston area, and was designated as the Central Lancashire New Town. This opened up a wealth of development opportunity in North East Lancashire, and a report was commissioned in 1969 to address the inadequacy of transport links between the proposed new town and Colne. The M65 was about to be born.
1969-74: A Motorway is Born
The North East Lancashire Project Study (NELPS) determined that the rapidly declining Calder Valley required a new ‘fast route’ between the M6/M61 and Colne to facilitate development and encourage movement between the new town and the areas to the east. This route, to be motorway standard, would supercede ‘Route 5’ – better known as improvements to the A59. This explains why today both the Clitheroe and Whalley Bypasses (opened in 1970) comprise of simple single carriageways with room for ‘future-proofing’.
The ‘fast route’ would begin on the M6 at Prospect Hill, and would also plug into the M61 at a restricted access junction, before heading immediately to the east, passing rural villages such as Gregson Lane and Riley Green before entering the urban area of Blackburn. The route through the town was contentious, with leafy suburbs being bulldozed until the motorway hit the edge of the town centre and paralleled the East Lancashire Line. At Nova Scotia the Blackburn Inner Relief Road would have commenced and looped around to rejoin the motorway at Copy Nook before continuing eastwards towards Whitebirk – and rural areas once again.
Beyond Whitebirk the motorway would have continued to the south of Rishton whilst also passing Accrington to the north and providing a spur road into the town. The route, still continuing vaguely north east, continued past Hapton and towards Burnley where the Halifax trunk road would’ve diverged. At Burnley itself, an improved A671 linking to the A59 and A6068 corridors would’ve branched to the north west, with the motorway curving around the northern end of Brierfield and Nelson before terminating on the A56 on the outskirts of Colne.
The motorway itself west of Blackburn was to be further bolstered by improvements to the existing network – for instance the A674 corridor was to provide a high speed link between Blackburn and Chorley, and the A677 was to be improved as well. Ultimately, of these ambitious proposals, only a short segment was constructed – a single carriageway bypass of Wheelton on the A674, to provide better connectivity with the M61 at junction 8.
A number of alternative routes were considered, but discounted as being inadequate for the expected volumes of traffic by 1993. These options ranged from minimal improvements to existing roads, to a frankly bizarre proposal to plug the motorway into the A6119 at both ends causing a break in the high standard route. None of these options were explored further than a line on the map but they did have detailed reasons for their rejection.
However, the 1969 proposal did not remain static – by 1972 numerous amendments had been placed into it, including a potential extension to the Aire Valley Motorway in Yorkshire, and the rerouted A56 improvements avoiding the urban valleys between Rawtenstall and Burnley, which also provided a bypass for the A680 through Accrington. Further improvements to the existing A56 in order to bypass Colne and Foulridge, connecting the motorway to the A59, were also drafted. To the west, proposed improvements to the A677 were deleted, but a possible link to Longridge was explored. Further road improvements were penciled in for the major towns, all to be tied into the new motorway. Such ambition was behind these plans that completion dates as early as 1978 were put forward.
Alas, less than a year after the publication of the 1972 Sub Region Report, the oil crisis struck, and most road projects were suddenly on hold as the country faced three day working weeks and rota power cuts. However, despite the enormous political upheavals of the early 1970s the Calder Valley Fast Route continued to proceed, with detailed design of the Whitebirk to Colne section well advanced by 1974. This was not the case with the M6 to Whitebirk section, which had numerous setbacks. For a start, Blackburn Council was not in favour of the motorway being routed through the town centre, despite their ambitious redevelopment schemes to demolish over 110 acres of the town for modern development and new roads. In the end, financial pressures scaled this down to a mere 12 acres and the final phase of the initial town centre redevelopment did not open fully until 1981.
At the same time, the sections of motorway to the east were being extensively designed. In 1973 a planning application was submitted for the Burnley to Colne section of the motorway, requesting dual three lane carriageways following the experience of having to widen the Preston Bypass in the early 1960s. The treasury refused to fund such a scheme, requiring the scaling back of the plans to dual two lanes with no provision for future widening. These eastern sections, not being connected to any trunk roads, were to be principal route motorways – that is to say that Lancashire County Council would be the highway authority, not central government. This view of the Council was that upon completion of the eastern link to Yorkshire and the Aire Valley Motorway, control of the route should be passed to central government.
However, the fact the motorway was under the remit of Lancashire allowed the easternmost parts scheme to progress much quicker than it would have done otherwise, and by 1978 construction of the first length between Burnley Barracks (junction 10) and Reedyford (junction 13) was well underway. By contrast, the sections under control of central government did not commence until much later.
1974-80: The Public, the Secretary of State, and the Demise
Whilst NELPS was relatively detailed and highlighted the need for a new road, objections from Blackburn Council threatened to condemn the scheme to the bin. In response to this Lancashire County Council and the North West Road Construction Unit (NWRCU) realised that alternative routes would be necessary if the motorway was to go ahead. In 1974, six routes were designed and went to one of the first ever public consultations on a major road scheme in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, all of the proposed routes featured a 70 mph operating speed, even the urban sections!
As the plans were issued for public consumption, the options were colour coded for easy reference and are detailed as follows:
Purple Route: Motorway - 10.8 milesM6 at junction 31, and roughly following the A677 and A6119 corridors. This route was to be dual three lanes between the M6 and Five Barred Gate (the current A59/A677 junction), and dual two lanes beyond to Whitebirk. Junctions were to be provided at Five Barred Gate, Yew Tree (also known as Shackerley Bar, A677/A6119), Brownhill (A666), and Whitebirk (A678). The maximum gradient was to be 4%.
Yellow Route: All Purpose - 10.8 milesM6 at junction 31, as per the Purple Route, but east of the Yew Tree Junction it would utilise the existing A6119 in places, leaving properties fronting onto the upgraded road. It diverged from the existing road at Bank Hey before heading to Whitebirk as per the Purple Route. This route was to be dual three lanes between the M6 and Five Barred Gate, and dual two lanes beyond there to Whitebirk, as per the Purple Route. Instead of 3.3 metre hard shoulders, a 1 metre hard strip was to be provided, with lay-bys at frequent intervals. The main carriageways were to be covered by a Clearway Order. The maximum gradient was to be 5%.
Red Route: Motorway - 13 milesM6 and M61 at Prospect Hill (also known as Blacow Bridge). East of Bamber Bridge, the motorway would have passed Gregson Lane, crossed the A675 with a possible junction if required by traffic studies, and then headed across open countryside to join the Purple Route at the Yew Tree Junction. This route was to be dual two lanes. The maximum gradient was to be 4%.
Blue Route: Motorway - 10.5 milesM6/M61 as per the Red Route, but once beyond there it headed directly towards Blackburn, crossing the A675 at Riley Green and heading through Pleasington (requiring significant diversions of the River Darwen), and entering the urban area west of Mill Hill, where a restricted access junction with the realigned B6447 would allow eastbound exit and westbound entry only. Almost immediately beyond, slip roads would diverge onto the proposed Blackburn Inner Relief Route at Nova Scotia, carried over the East Lancashire Railway on a 12 metre high viaduct. Slip roads to and from the A679 to the east would also be provided. Continuing east, the Blackburn Inner Relief Route would have rejoined the motorway at Copy Nook at another restricted access junction before the motorway blasted in a straight line to Whitebirk. This route was to be dual two lanes as far as Copy Nook, and dual three lanes from there on. The maximum gradient was to be 4%.
Brown Route: Motorway - 12.1 milesA666 at Moss Bridge, before curving sharply to shadow the A666 through Ewood to rejoin the Blue Route at Nova Scotia. This route was to be dual two lanes as far as Copy Nook, and dual three lanes as per the Blue Route from there on. The maximum gradient was to be 5%.
Green Route: All Purpose - 12.9 milesB6231/A677 (now B6236)), before the road curved around to rejoin the other proposed routes towards Hyndburn at Whitebirk. This route was to be dual two lanes with 1 metre hard strips, and the main carriageway covered by a Clearway Order. The maximum gradient was to be 5% and where this was the case, crawler lanes were to be provided. Interestingly, this was the only proposal where this was the case – the Brown Route would not have featured such a lane, despite also requiring a 5% gradient.
The six routes went out to public consultation on April 28, 1975. Lancashire County Council was concerned that the public would favour the Green Route as it avoided urban areas entirely, even though it would not serve the centre of Blackburn at all meaning traffic would have to travel along inadequate radial routes to and from the town. The preferred option on the part of the authorities, with the obvious exception of Blackburn Council, was the Brown Route as this provided a motorway standard link through Blackburn and also bypassed one of the worst parts of the A666 through Ewood.
Whilst the consultation ended in mid 1975, it took a further two years for a decision to be reached by the Secretary of State. As Lancashire Council and the NWRCU feared, the Green Route was selected and made official in autumn 1977. Immediately, representations were made against this decision stating that the Green Route provided the least value for money, was not a motorway despite assurances that the Fast Route would be of a consistent standard throughout, and did not relieve traffic from Blackburn town centre.
Lancashire Council produced a seventh alternative proposal, nicknamed the ‘Khaki Route’ which was similar to the Green Route in design standard, but had a different route, which was to pass to the north of Lower Darwen, then skirt the south of the recently constructed Higher Croft Local Authority Estate, before heading across two reservoirs and bisecting the site of the Shadsworth Business Park and rejoining Whitebirk roundabout. This route was more direct, and would relieve more roads. The Secretary of State rejected the proposal without further consideration, stating that the views of the public consultation had to be taken into account and the findings from the exercise should stand. Lancashire felt this was a coded message for allowing the political wrangling to kill off the project altogether, despite the fact that the sections to the east had already been funded by central government.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, design work on the M6 to Whitebirk section of the route was suspended in 1980 following a major review of the national road programme by the newly elected Conservative administration. The government stated that the lack of tangible progress with the Central Lancashire New Town meant there was no economic justification for a new build route to East Lancashire, and that Lancashire County Council should instead focus efforts on improvements to the existing A59, A677, and A6119 corridors. It has been suggested by the engineers working on the project at the time that central government felt that Lancashire had already had far more than its fair share of motorways by this point!
1980-87: Bridging the Gap
The suspension of design work on the motorway west of Whitebirk left a glaring problem in terms of the network. Anticipated traffic flows on the new motorway east of Blackburn had warranted dual three lane carriageways as far as Rose Grove Interchange (junction 9), where the motorway would deposit traffic back onto the existing A679/A646 trunk road. This meant that a dual three lane motorway was going to unceremoniously terminate at a large roundabout on the outskirts of a major town, leaving traffic to continue on an inter-war arterial road festooned with at-grade junctions and direct property frontages. As expected, the view of Lancashire County Council was that this was completely unacceptable and a fresh round of representations and political battles between authorities began, with a large meeting between the central government and local politicians who were in favour of the completion of the motorway. There was a notable exception of one MP who was more concerned with a desire to ensure local objectors in the Brindle and Houghton areas were satisfied to the point that he had not even bothered to read the engineer’s reports! A few strongly worded letters were sent explaining the benefits of the proposed alignment and the matter appeared to be closed by the lack of a response from the MP.
Meanwhile, the political upheavals caused by the abolition of the Road Construction Units did not adversely affect the M65 works east of Whitebirk – by 1981 work had started on constructing the road between Rishton (junction 7) and Burnley Barracks (junction 10), as well as the associated link roads. This section of the M65 opened concurrently with the Brierfield to Nelson section in December 1983. This length of motorway also happened to be the final scheme that Harry Yeadon, the successor to Sir James Drake, was directly in charge of on prior to his retirement in 1985. It is also somewhat fitting that the length of A679 the road relieved was the site of his childhood home.
It is worth noting that a design flaw in the lighting columns along this length of motorway saw them vibrate excessively in high winds, and for safety reasons they were replaced in their entirety at the manufacturer’s expense.
At junction 8, a short length of all-purpose dual carriageway was constructed to connect to the A679. In 1985, this was extended south to meet the existing Haslingden Bypass at the Rising Bridge Roundabout (A680). The completion of the Accrington Easterly Bypass prompted an explosion in the number of commuters between the Calder Valley and Greater Manchester via the M66, and the result of this is that this corridor is now one of the most congested lengths of motorway in the conurbation.
The eventual completion of the A6068 Shuttleworth Hall Link in 1990 opened up a corridor for Clitheroe traffic to join the motorway via the A671. This was a compromise solution owing to the fact the Padiham Inner Relief Road from NELPS was no longer planned, and a link to the motorway was urgent. The link road features a very steep gradient and as a result is a three lane single carriageway.
The effects of environmental objections had delayed the start of works on the Whitebirk to Rishton (junctions 6 to 7) section and this segment did not open until a year later, in December 1984. At the same time the construction of the A6185 Dunkenhalgh Way was completed providing a dual carriageway link to Accrington from the new motorway and relieving the A679 of traffic misery. The design of the Whitebirk interchange had flared carriageways – not in expectation of completion of the motorway through Blackburn, but rather to provide future connection to the proposed Furthergate Link Road, a major road scheme developed after the Green Route was chosen in 1977. The levels of the carriageways also facilitated the future provision free flow connections into the Green Route.
The Furthergate Link has not yet been constructed, but it remains a long term aspiration for Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council even today, having last been referred to as the Burnley Road Bypass in 2009 which was to form part of a wider public transport package known as Pennine Reach. In 2010, this proposal was again deleted but it may yet resurface as part of a regeneration scheme in East Blackburn, albeit as a single carriageway.
Harry Yeadon continued to push the case for the completion of the motorway through to the M6, and eventually in 1984 the then Secretary of State, Lynda Chalker, finally allowed design work to resume on the M6 to Whitebirk section, but the route was still to remain all-purpose.
However, the completion of the Whitebirk to Rishton section meant that by 1985 it was possible to travel from Blackburn to Nelson on continuous motorway standard road. This also had the unfortunate effect of making the M65 look very isolated on road atlases and the unflattering nickname “the road to nowhere” began to circulate at this time.
Construction of the easternmost section, between junction 13 and 14, did not commence until May 1987 owing to the presence of Reedyford Hospital on the line of the motorway. Conveniently for Lancashire County Council, the hospital was to relocate to an expanded site at Burnley General, which cleared the way for the extension to a terminal roundabout on the A6068 North Valley Road. The provision of a link to the A56, known as the Whitewalls Diversion, was also part of this contract. At the time, the route of the motorway to the east was protected to allow for eventual connection to the Aire Valley Trunk Road, by this point in service as an all-purpose dual carriageway section of the A650. This length of the motorway opened to traffic in September 1988, and confirmed the viability of the Calder Valley as a commuter dormitory. Because of this, the need to connect the Calder Valley with the M6 and M61 also became extremely pressing, and in light of the changed economic circumstances of the region, central government were yet again approached for a decision on the missing link of the route.
Lancashire County Council did not need to wait long – in 1987, the Green Route finally re-entered the national roads programme using an altered line to provide a more desirable alignment and by some surprising twist of fate, central government finally realised the folly of having an inconsistent route and decided to upgrade the route to motorway standard after all a year later. There is a bitter irony in Lancashire County Council finally getting their motorway along an alignment they did not want, but, in 1989 the Blackburn Southern Bypass entered the statutory processes and the 13 mile length of motorway was drawn up in detail.
1988-97: The Southern Bypass versus Swampy
The detailed design of the new motorway was substantial and cannibalised recently provided infrastructure that had been designed to accommodate older plans. For example, the replacement of the existing all-purpose Walton Summit Spur, constructed from the M61 in the mid-1980s, was a notable example. As the motorway was to begin on the A6 Bamber Bridge Bypass – the only section of the Central Lancashire New Town Eastern Primary Route to have been constructed – this required a significant reconstruction of that road as well.
At Whitebirk, a significant disadvantage in ‘future proofing’ carriageways became evident as the carefully designed westbound carriageway had to be realigned to accommodate the new motorway line which was different to the original proposal. This left junction 6 as a bizarre ‘semi-directional’ interchange with sprawling slip roads all crashing into the existing at-grade roundabout whilst the motorway itself turns through 90 degrees on a curve that stretches the design limits of motorways to the maximum.
The local press were well in favour of finally connecting the region to the M6, with the Lancashire Evening Telegraph producing a large detailed supplement in January 1990 detailing all the benefits – going so far as to name the road “Lifeline 65”. It is well worth noting that the economic climate in the 1980s had left the East Lancashire region in a bad way, Blackburn in particular was in terminal decline – even the flagship shopping centre was hemorrhaging money as shops closed down and revenues plummeted.
The detailed design required a number of environmental considerations to be taken into account. As a consequence of these, the Blackburn Southern Bypass was not to be illuminated except on slip roads and the length between the terminal junction at Bamber Bridge and the M61, whereas the older sections of motorway were lit throughout. The motorway was also to remain as dual two lanes east of the M61, except where crawler lanes were provided on the steep gradients between junctions 3 and 5. However, despite failing to achieve this goal with the junctions 10-14 section, the design team did manage to ensure that this time around structures were designed to accommodate future widening to dual three lanes.
These mitigation measures, however, were not sufficient to stop the arrival of anti-road protestors who arrived once work commenced in spring 1994, and set up tree-houses and other shanty dwellings in order to frustrate completion of the motorway. At Earcroft, squatters took control of a lengthy row of terraced properties slated for demolition and their exploits across the street from a large secondary school did not escape the attention of local parents and press alike!
Further complaints regarding the impact on the Cuerden Valley Park had to be addressed, and the motorway was carefully built past the site minimising the impact.
The environmental protesters were eventually removed from the motorway site, at a significant cost, and work continued relatively unhindered despite the poor winters of 1995 and 1996 delaying the completion by some six months. The final section of the M65 was opened in December 1997, with the ribbon cutting ceremony taking place at the Guide Roundabout (junction 5). Tragically, within a week of the motorway opening, it had its first fatal accident when a broken down vehicle stopped on a slip road which did not have a hard shoulder, and the driver was struck by a van as she walked in the dark towards an SOS telephone. A campaign for the lighting of the motorway began, along with demands to provide lighting on the adjacent M61 but this has so far been resisted by Highways England which is not pursuing a policy of lighting the motorway.
Interestingly, the need to ensure the appropriate integration with the surrounding area mean that the M65 saw the first ever use of transparent Perspex noise barriers in the United Kingdom. These were provided on the Tramway Lane bridge at Walton Summit, and the A666 bridge at Earcroft.
1997-today: Keeping Things Moving
The road opened up development opportunity of a scale never seen before in the region, with huge industrial and commercial parks at Walton Summit, Earcroft, Shadsworth, Whitebirk, Burnley, and Colne all being developed surrounding the road. A large number of housing developments have been constructed to provide easy access to the motorway for commuters, and these have had considerable effects on the junctions and link roads feeding into the road.
As early as 2001, the Highways Agency predicted that traffic growth would see frequent congestion on the section between junctions 4 and 6 by 2012, and started a low scale programme of minor improvements to try and get traffic exiting the motorway to avoid delays. These programmes have varied from repainting exit slip roads as two lanes, to full signalisation of junctions 5 and 6. Junction 8 was modified to allow commuters from Burnley to join the A56 without even stopping at the roundabout. Further improvements have seen changes to the roundabouts at the M6 and M61 junctions in order to assist the enormous flows of traffic now using them.
In December 2002, a service area was provided at junction 4. A local controversy erupted when the service area was named after Blackburn, despite being constructed across the town boundary in neighbouring Darwen! After some vocal representations, sign vandalism, and even a question in Parliament, the service area was renamed “Blackburn with Darwen” in late 2005.
The M65 has been a test bed for streetlighting experiments for several years. In early 2002, proposals were put forward to 'dim' the lighting between junctions 6 and 10 as part of a night-time experiment. Some ten years later, the Highways Agency changed their policy on streetlighting and determined that the relatively low traffic volumes and satisfactory levels of accident rates on the same section meant that the lighting could be switched off entirely. A general refurbishment package in late 2011 saw a number of the life-expired columns between junctions 7 and 9 taken down leaving the dual three lane section looking rather rural.
As expected, the levels of congestion on the J1a-6 section have steadily increased and by the time the 'extension' reached its 20th anniversary in 2017, it was hinted that in a future Road Investment Strategy period the M65 here might finally be widened to three lanes.
It is worth noting that the M65 has become a victim of its own success. Far from being the originally planned strategic alternative to the M62, it has become a commuter road for those living in the region but working elsewhere. At peak periods the major junctions are laden with traffic, and delays are inevitable. The Blackburn Southern Bypass has attracted deep criticism from anti-roads campaigners who point it out as a classic example of ‘new roads filling up with traffic’.
At the western end, despite what would appear to be future provision to continue a high standard road (the erstwhile Preston Box), no plans exist to actually implement it, meaning that M65 traffic is forced to navigate a large roundabout to join the A6 before heading north into Preston, or alternatively, west along the A582. The congestion experienced daily at both ends of the motorway is an increasing cause for concern to the highway authorities concerned, and projects to signalise both the large gyratory in Colne on the North Valley Road, and the A6/A582 roundabout were undertaken in late 2010.
It therefore seems that even 30 years since the opening of the first length, the M65 saga is far from over. Yet, had it not been for the continued persistence of Lancashire County Council, the project would have been abandoned, or at least heavily watered down. Even though central government felt that Lancashire was building too many motorways, it is certainly difficult to visualise quite how the region could have possibly hoped to survive without the construction of these roads. Whilst the increased traffic causes problems, it is fair to argue that the benefits from commuters moving into the area, requiring the construction of new supermarkets, schools, and local facilities such as restaurants and corner shops has increased employment opportunity in an area that is not known for economic prowess, and it can only be said that the area owes a large debt of gratitude to the engineers who made these roads possible against the spectre of central government hostility.
This page includes a copy of an image and/or text provided by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council for use in the Cotton Town digitisation project found at www.cottontown.org.