slip inside this (giant distribution ware)house

After the Mancunian love-in at Jamie Kenny’s, my own thoughts on Joe Moran’s On Roads are inevitably coming.

I didn’t know that we have Tony Benn to thank for the big-box supply chain logistics industry. But yes; at the end of the 1960s, the then Minister of Technology tore off a £150,000 innovation grant for the Co-op to investigate the idea of developing a small number of giant, automated distribution centres. Specifically, they started work at Birtley in County Durham, where they built a huge regional warehouse that used new articulated trucks and robotic cranes, and an ICL mainframe computer to keep track of it all, achieving a then-unheard of 5,000 boxes an hour.

As a condition of the grant, the Co-op had to share the details of their trial with the rest of British industry. For once, they soaked it up but good, and the rest is history. I find this fascinatingly ironic, especially in the light of Benn’s status both as pope of the 80s green-left and, later, as professional national treasure. Most of his fans in the 80s would have been delighted to burn Birtley down, and the cardigans who go to his speaking engagements are exactly the people who drive everywhere and oppose all planning applications on principle.

Benn was famously keen on nuclear power and Concorde (even if Roland Beamont really saw him coming, when he let the old pilot execute a barrel roll in the prototype); he also bought BT’s first billing systems computer as postmaster-general. I very much doubt if many people who considered themselves Bennites would have accepted any of these things, still less the UKAEA police force he created with its special nuclear role, routine and heavy armament, and nationwide area of operations. Similarly, he was forever despised by some people for the infamous bonfire of TSR-2 blueprints.

Some would say that this is a sign that he was always oversold, and in fact was just trimming to the winds of popularity for most of his career. Isn’t he the only third-generation cabinet minister to have a cabinet minister for a son, after all?

But I suspect it’s deeper and wider than that. One thing about Moran’s book is the way nothing lasts less than the perception of modernity. By the time that ICL ‘pooter was being set up in Birtley, the great road burst was already losing momentum; it had run into serious trouble at the 1970 local elections and along the Westway, and a property boom was straining the economics, to say nothing of altering the politics and demographics of many of the road projects. By M6 completion in 1972, the Department of Transport had already accepted that “the day of the supremacy of the motor car and the roadbuilder has come to an end”. Leeds was about to make a fool of itself by declaring that it was the Motorway City of the 70s; the 60s would have met with great approval.

By the 90s, who on earth imagined roads as being the future? This was one of the reasons, I think, the Major government was never able to come to terms with the road protestors on the political level. The only language they had to argue against them was all about Luddites, stick-in-the-muds, progress, and such – the language of 50s corporation socialists and youve-never-had-it-so-good Tories. But the future now looked like one of solar panels, synthesisers and Web servers – everyone agreed there – and maybe genetics and TGVs – much more controversial, of course. And what on earth were conservatives – members of a party that believed in the scepticism of Burke and the libertarianism of Hayek…it says here – doing talking about progress and plans that were bigger than those of Julius Caesar?

Now, of course, with the grandeur stripped out and the brakes applied, no-one really cares. And it is no surprise, really, that a book like On Roads should appear at this moment; it’s about time for motorways to become part of the palaeo-future. The notion of ironic hipster A40(M) widening, however, makes me feel like I’ve got used to too many things.


  1. Chris Williams

    Heh. Jon Agar’s _The Government Machine_ has more on the MoT and compute systems. In the mid 1960s, they were the first to buy in to the PERT management software system, one of the fruits of Polaris. Ran into the sand in the 1970s? A bit McNamara, then.

  1. 1 first mover advantage « Alternate Seat of TYR

    […] the House, we’ll just have started getting angry. This is one of the historical lessons of On Roads; if you really want to stop something, you need to start earlier than you […]

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