MT 39/68

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FINANCE: Road construction and maintenance (national Economy)

Date range1931-1933
LocationNational Archives (see all files stored here)
CatalogueSee entry
File baseSeries MT, subseries MT 39

Context

In 1929, the Wall Street crash marked the start of the Great Depression; in the UK the economic downturn took effect shortly afterwards. During 1930 unemployment more than doubled, and by early in 1931 there was a serious financial crisis. The Government very nearly fell, and a National Government was formed, which passed an emergency budget in September 1931 that instituted massive spending cuts.

This file deals with the effects of those events on the Ministry of Transport, and in particular, the effect of the September budget.

I have read a lot of files at the National Archives and elsewhere, but it's hard to remember any other file that has felt so immediate and so moving to read. It is correspondence between a Ministry in complete crisis and a Government that is on the brink of collapse, and the rate at which the situation deteriorates as 1931 progresses is genuinely alarming.

Contents of note

  • Correspondence within the Ministry between its senior civil servants, Treasury officials and Divisional Road Engineers, all marked "secret", about halting or delaying building work and maintenance. Discussions in the early part of 1931 are exploratory and look at whether maintenance schemes could be carried out more cheaply, with the MOT sticking its head in the sand and insisting that cheaper maintenance would mean that repairs would not last as long and would necessitate more maintenance work much sooner. By August 1931 the conversation is very different - the MOT is being asked to cancel or defer maintenance and building schemes. In September 1931 the severity of the problem is clear and the MOT issues instructions to immediately halt and abandon all construction and maintenance work of all kinds, including all schemes that were already underway, with the only stipulation being that building sites must not be left in a state that is dangerous to the public.
  • There are lists of work that was halted and schemes that were deferred as a result of the crisis. Many of them are now, visibly, unfinished schemes and can be matched to places where even today it's clear that a road widening scheme was started and came to an end at an arbitrary point. Others are schemes for new roads that never recovered. The MOT was unable even to assist local authorities spend trivial sums of money to protect the line of road schemes for the future, so many schemes that were set to begin construction in 1931 were never built because their line was built over.
  • Evidence of upheaval within the MOT: many civil servants were moved to other departments or laid off as the department reduced its staffing. Those who remained were forced to accept temporary wage cuts, and those who did not accept them were sacked and re-employed on a lower wage.
  • Emergency legislation that was passed in order to enable the MOT to renege on financial commitments to local authorities.
  • The Chancellor of the Exchequer for some of this period was Neville Chamberlain; there are several original letters here with his signature.

People with camera copies

Chris Marshall has a partial copy.