BYPASS or Throughway? This was the choice faced by Newport council 60 years ago as it sought a solution to increasing traffic congestion in the then town centre. ANDY RUTHERFORD looks back at the debate over which option to take, the outcome of which shaped the then town's landscape and paved the way for the M4.

SIXTY years ago this month, Newport council somewhat reluctantly backed plans for a northern bypass, seven miles of road which in its eventual guise as part of the M4 has become Wales' busiest stretch of motorway.

Originally proposed by central government in 1947, it was met with scepticism by the then town's powers-that-be and was shelved for more than a decade, with the council developing the idea of a bridge over the Usk, linking George Street to Wharf Road.

Chronic and worsening traffic problems in the centre of Newport however, meant that by the end of the 1950s something had to be done - and an alternative scheme unveiled in 1958 began to concentrate minds.

And little wonder. The Newport Throughway scheme was a radical idea that would have redrawn the map of large parts of Maindee and Pill.

Tumbling across Lawrence Hill - from a point roughly where Christchurch Road crosses the current M4 - the Throughway would also have involved a tunnel starting in the Beechwood Park area and finishing near the Chepstow Road/Wharf Road junction.

From there, a raised road was proposed, over Corporation Road and the river. On the eastern side, the bridge was to begin where the current George Street Bridge is - but its route would take it slightly southwards into Pill.

South Wales Argus:

RAISED ROAD: The red dots superimposed on this 1959 map of the Throughway proposal show how it would have ploughed through Pill. The road would have come off the bridge on a route where the student village and magistrates court are now

The raised road was planned to pass just south of the cattle market, where Asda is today, obliterating much of South Market Street and Dolphin Street, crossing Commercial Road, taking out what is now Francis Street (then Lewis Street), before curving up to the end of Alma Street and joining Cardiff Road at what was then the Belle Vue Roundabout.

The Throughway would have displaced 3,000 people, according to one estimate, and involved the demolition of more than 400 homes. It would also have cost, according to the Ministry of Transport, £5.5 million (in 1959 prices). The bypass had an estimated cost of £3.5 million.

South Wales Argus:

ROUTE: Had the Throughway plan gone ahead, Dolphin Street (left) and South Market Street in Pill - along with homes in many other streets, including in Maindee - would have had to be demolished to make way for it. Pictures -

Amazing as it may seem six decades on, the Throughway was for much of the year prior to August 1959 the preferred option of Newport town council, and had been approved in principle the previous summer.

Why? The council liked the idea of a bridge over the River Usk linking George Street and Wharf Road as a means of tackling the town's traffic woes.

The idea of a second bridge over the river had been kicked around by various administrations for decades and mounting problems, particularly at the Old Green Crossing and Town Bridge, made it seem increasingly attractive. The Throughway plan contained such a bridge.

The government didn't fancy it though, and was reluctant to pay for it, viewing it more as a solution to local traffic problems rather than as part of a wider network of road improvements.

The northern bypass was the preferred option of Harold Watkinson, then Minister of Transport in Harold Macmillan's Conservative Government. A ministry idea, it was viewed with suspicion by Newport council, which saw it as a trunk road scheme.

Moreover, the council did not consider it as a bypass at all, as for most of its length it was inside the then borough boundary, and much traffic would have to enter the town before it could use it. The council's view was that it was designed primarily for east-west traffic.

At a public inquiry in 1947, then town clerk Mervyn Jones made clear his and the council's feelings. The bypass, he said, would create another barrier to development in Newport on a par with the river and the railways.

"It will be for all purposes like building Hadrian's Wall, or cutting Offa's Dyke, right through the middle of the town," he said.

He also called it "a destroyer of the amenities of the borough" not least because it would pass through Tredegar Park, Crindau Park, the Glebelands, St Julians Recreation Ground, and the Lawrence Hill open space.

There were concerns too, that it would ruin the view from the Ridgeway, a prospect described by Alderman Reginald Tyack, then Mayor of Newport, as "sacrilege".

South Wales Argus:

BYPASS: A 1959 map superimposed with the proposed route Newport's northern bypass, which followed almost exactly the subsequent route of the M4

Despite these objections the bypass was formally approved by the Ministry as part of the post-war trunk roads programme, though it was then put on the back burner. In the meantime, Newport council developed its proposal for a river crossing at George Street, as part of its 1950 town development plan.

The stalemate continued until the Throughway scheme was developed as an alternative.

The Throughway was meant to break the deadlock and might well have gone ahead, but for two reasons.

The first was that its bridge required a high tide clearance of 55 feet to satisfy the needs of shipping, a sizeable amount of which still ventured upstream of where the bridge would cross.

The harbour commissioners insisted upon it, adding to the cost and the amount of houses requiring demolition - on both sides of the Usk - to accommodate the bridge and its approach roads.

The second was the cost of rehoming families who faced being turfed out of houses in Maindee and even more so, in Pill.

It was only in July 1959, at a meeting between Watkinson and a delegation from Newport, that councillors' minds began the change. The former made it clear that should the council choose the Throughway scheme, it would have to top up the difference between the money the Government was prepared to offer to help rehome people, and what the actual cost of rehoming would be.

An eye-wateringly expensive prospect, this is what ultimately turned the tide in favour of the bypass. Watkinson also informed the delegation that he was ready to go ahead with the northern bypass if by September the council had not made a decision about which scheme it preferred.

On August 18, the South Wales Argus ran a story on the options facing the council, and five days later, the council voted through the northern bypass scheme. Misgivings remained, however.

Some councillors voted for the Throughway scheme, seeing the demolition of hundreds of homes and the displacement of the families who lived in them as an uncomfortable but necessary price to pay for progress.

Some hated it however, and were not afraid to express it. Councillor John Marsh condemned it as "concrete montrosity" that would "scar" the town, and which no-one would want to live within 500 yards of.

Others believed the George Street Bridge scheme should be given priority, or that the council, if it backed the northern bypass, should continue to lobby for such a bridge to be built as a matter of urgency.

It emerged during the debate that Watkinson, during the July meeting in London, had indicated that a second river crossing south of Town Bridge could go into the funding queue and might not be too many years away.

Other councillors believed the northern bypass should have been approved a decade before, and that if it had been, Newport would be reaping the benefits.

Still another thought the council had been 'played' by the minister into accepting the bypass scheme, as his alternative - the Throughway - had, in the end proved even more unpalatable. Watkinson, he concluded, had won the tactical battle.

Whatever the pros and cons of the northern bypass, no-one can deny that, as the stretch of the M4 from the Coldra to Tredegar Park, it took much traffic out of the centre of Newport.

South Wales Argus:

M4: This stretch of the motorway, looking south from junction 27 (High Cross) was part of the original route for Newport's northern bypass

Sixty years on however, it too has become the focus of much hand-wringing over the traffic congestion, delays and their supposed economic effects, albeit on a more regional South Wales scale, out of which the controversial and now doomed M4 Relief Road plan emerged.

By the time this section of the M4 opened, in 1966/67, the George Street Bridge, that second river crossing so coveted by the council, had already opened - in 1964 - funding having been found rather more quickly than perhaps expected in 1959, both to build it and to rehouse those - all on the Maindee side - whose homes were in the way.