Critically examine the development of Town and Country Planning in the United Kingdom
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Town and country planning or urban and regional planning as its otherwise known, can be defined as ‘planning with a spatial, or geographical, component, in which the general objectives is to provide for a spatial structure of activities (or of land uses) which in some way is better than the pattern that would exist without planning’ (Hall. 2002). Cherry (1974) expands this by stating town planning is an activity centred on land, land use and activities and the development process embedded within a distinct social context and takes place with economic and political systems.
Hall (2002) claims town and country planning emerged in response to specific social and economic problems that were simulated by the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. Sutcliffe (1980) agrees, stating that the foundation period of modern planning was the century of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation which culminated in the First World War. However in order to fully recognise this, it is necessary to consider what happened prior to then in terms of planning.
Element of planning are accepted to exist before industrialisation; since ancient times, towns had been laid out by authority, public facilities had been provided, and regulations to control private building had been enforced (Sutcliffe. 1980), as its claimed without such planning towns were ‘liable to discourage prospective residents, turn away trade, burn down and lose their populations in sweeping epidemics’.
Even in ancient and medieval times towns were planned ‘in the sense that their existence and their location were laid down consciously by some ruler or some group of merchants; among this group, a large proportion even had formal ground plans with a strong element of geometric regularity’ (Hall. 2002). It is widely acknowledges that the greatest flowering of formal town planning before the Industrial Revolution came in the Baroque era in Europe, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
At this time, Britain had no absolute monarchy resulting in the aristocracy and the new merchant class dominating the growth of cities and determined their form. This resulted in a different but distinctive form of town planning from the rest of Europe. Hall (2002) highlights Bath as the best example of eighteenth century British town planning, as until then it was a small medieval town, but due to the new enthusiasm for spa cures among the aristocracy it was transformed.
However as Tarn (1980) critically claims, the ‘British attitude to towns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show a clear leaning towards a picturesque rather than a baroque sense of design, towards the semi-formal rather than the formal, to such and extent as to suggest a national characteristic of deliberately underplaying one’s architectural hand’.
Although the industrial revolution is agreed to have kick-started planning as it is known today, at first it had no striking effect on urban growth as it dispersed industry out of the town and into the open countryside, creating new industrial towns developed from often almost nothing (Hall. 2002). The industrial towns brushed aside what Tarn (1980) claims was a previously weak tradition of urban design of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, being replaced with a contrast between rich man’s suburb on the periphery and the inner tangle of housing and industry.
In the early industrial society, people needed to live near to their work and working class ghettos were created (Tarn 1980). Growth patterns were extraordinary in this period, as people flooded to these areas from the countryside. As Hall (2002) claims, the towns provided economic opportunities but the social arrangement was incapable of meeting needs for shelter, for elementary public services or for health treatment.
The growth of the towns were motivated by the interaction of industrialist and speculative building with as Tarn (1980) states, ‘the housing was clearly related to known need and carefully pitched at the appropriate level of the market’. Consequently the housing for workers built extensively at this time ‘cannot be regarded as planned development in any acceptable sense of the term…….. more the fundamental inclination towards terraced houses rather than flatted blocks’ (Tarn. 980). These towns only had elementary arrangements consequently the limited water supplies were increasingly contaminated by sewage, there were inadequate arrangements for disposal of waste, filthy matter remained close to dense concentrations of people; water supplies were lacking or fitful and personal hygiene was very poor; overcrowding grew steadily worse, medical treatment and public health controls were non-existent.
This combined with the greater mobility induced by trade meant that epidemics could move rapidly across Britain and the world. This is believed to have triggered and enhanced the cholera epidemics that swept Britain in 1832, 1848 and 1866. (Hall. 2002). It was an unacceptable situation even for the privileged members of society who ‘fled from what they clearly recognised as unpleasant surroundings and set up new suburbs’ (Tarn. 1980).
However they couldn’t avoid the sickness and resulting deaths that affected high levels of their workers, causing unhealthy workforces, decreasing its productivity and therefore a decline in profits. At this stage the position became untenable and things were done to try to address the problems Tarn (1980) claims however the main thrust of legislation was directed towards correcting problems that were considered to be detrimental to health including the reform of the Municipal Corporations Act.
Most noteworthy, as highlighted by Hall (2002) was from the mid eighteenth century; the Public Health Act of 1848, that set up a Central Board of Health and allowed it to establish local boards of health, the Nuisance Removal Acts from 1855 and the Sanitary Act of 1866, while these are recognised as controlling the obvious sanitary problems by the 1860s, there was increasing interest in the control of building standards resulting in the Torrens Act from 1868 onwards, enabling local authorities to compel owners of unsanitary dwellings to demolish or repair them at their expense.
The Cross Acts, from 1875 onwards enabled local authorities themselves to prepare improvement schemes for slum areas. However most notable in terms of town and country planning was the 1875 Public Health Act which produced reform of local government, outside the boroughs, the country was divided into urban and rural sanitary districts, supervised by the Local Government Board. Hall (2002) claims the local authorities specifically the boroughs increasingly began to adopt model by-laws for the construction of new housing.
As Tarn (1980) states its connection with planning appears to be tenuous but when considered that the health legislation formed part of the whole debate about the relationship between private liberty and the rights of the community or the State. ‘In this respect, the development of health legislation led not only to the social principles of the Welfare State, but to the whole concept of planning as a social process’ (Tarn. 1980). It is recognised, as Tarn (1980) states, that none of the legislation was comprehensive as it didn’t seek to do more than control and contain an existing situation with the minimum amount of interference.
None of the legislation attempted to formulate a policy for town expansion and growth; it just simply set out to stop it being worse than what had been built earlier. Between 1870 and 1914 Hall (2002) claims virtually all British cities rapidly acquired a cheap and efficient public transport system. This had a huge impact on urban growth, resulting in urban sprawl as people no longer needed to live within walking distance of their place of work.
This combined with the growing expectancy of higher living standards amongst the artisans, together with an increasing sense of mobility, created a wider market and most speculatively built houses appeared with gardens both back and front and with ornamental details and a variety of minor refinements (Tarn. 1980). The increased demand to live in suburbs as Tarn (1980) claims resulted in early planners creating the notion of the garden city. However, the layouts still conformed to the pattern prescribed by the bye-laws and the Acts before them.
Though as Tarn (1980) states the attention to design, layout and handling of detail and the space between buildings are all ingredients of the urban scene both in terms of building regulations and of early town planning. It is this ‘grasp of housing design in the broader structure of an environmental and planning framework is the new dimension which lifts house design out of the world of mere aesthetic change into that of town planning’ (Tarn. 1980). The garden city paved the way as Tarn (1980) states for a private Act to evade the bye-laws which led to the first Town Planning Act in 1909.
As ‘the popularity of the garden city as a principle of planning was its extreme flexibility’ (Kostof. 1991). This coincided as Ward (2002) claims with the formation of a professional practice of planning and subsequently the creation of the Town Planning Institute under Thomas Adams. However, concern still existed from town planners and rural conservationists, as Hall (2002) states regarding development that was uncontrolled by any sort of effective planning, despite the Act in 1909 and subsequent Acts in 1925 and 1932, requiring local authorities to make town planning schemes for their areas.
There was no power to stop development when not in the public interest; developers could build almost wherever they likes, provided they followed the general lines of the local town planning scheme. Although the Acts were timid, as also recognised by Sutcliffe (1981), they laid the foundations of British town planning activity. As Tarn (1980) claims the ‘advent of more positive policies and a growing desire for action and improvement, together with new laws about housing, brought about a more creative, forward-looking view which paved the way for planning’.
Hall (2002) outlines how in 1937 the government appointed Sir Anderson Montague-Barlow to investigate the problems. The importance of which ‘in the history of British urban and regional planning can never be overestimated’ (Hall. 2002), as it was directly responsible for the events that led to the creation of the postwar planning machine between 1945 and 1952. As Hall (2002) outlines, the importance of the Barlow Commission to understanding and treating the problem was it united the national/regional problem with another problem; the physical growth of the great conurbations and presented them as two faces of the same problem.
This resulted in extensive reports produced from 1941 to 1947 by Scott, Uthwatt, Abercrombie, Reith, Dower, and Hobhouse. Consequently a burst of legislation followed between 1945 and 1952, the Distribution of Industry Act 1945, the New Towns Act 1946, the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the 1952 Town Development Act, the National Parks and access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the Town Development Act 1952. These created the postwar planning system’ (Hall. 2002).
Although Hall (2002) recognises that it since has been modified, its outlines has remained. Croft (1974) claims, planning has two elements both of which date from the nineteenth century through the pressure for community action gradually formulated itself into a policy element and a control element, with the policy element being concerned with the prescription of improved urban form while the control element represents the attempt to ensure that the prescription is properly administered.
However the ‘two elements were not adequately combined, comprehensively until the coming into operation of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947’ (Croft. 1974). This is enforced by Sutcliffe (1981) who also stated the planning control of all new building development that is now accept as normal, was not fully established until the 1947 Act.
Likewise Sutcliffe (1981) stated ‘In terms of historiographical development the 1947 Act was of crucial importance, for it suggested that a long process of evolution towards effective town planning had come to a successful conclusion’. Hall (2002) reinforced its importance on how it was one of the largest and most complex pieces of legislation ever passed by a British Parliament forming the cornerstone of the whole planning system and despite changes in the financial provisions of the 1947 Act, the main body of the legislation has survived.
Since then all the 1947 provisions together with subsequent amendments, were rolled up into a consolidating Act in 1962 and that in turn into Act of 1971 and 1990 (Hall. 2002). While Town and Country planning as it is recognised today can be traced specifically to 1947, since its formal introduction it has altered in response to social, economy and environmental demands.
Most noteworthy was the formation of greenbelts to protect the countryside from urban sprawl, until as Hall (2002) states, the publication of a report from the Planning Advisory Group concluded that the style of development planning set up under the 1947 act did not suit the rapidly changing situation of the 1960s and instead recommended a two tier system of plan making with firstly structure plans containing main policy proposals in board outline for a wide stretch of territory and secondary local plans for smaller areas which would be prepared within the framework of the structure plans as occasion arose.
These became embodied in the Planning Act of 1968 as Hall (2002) states the 1960s saw a swing in one direction with a new emphasis on broad-based plans while the 1970s and 1980s marked an even more extreme lurch in the opposite direction. The recession of this era saw the loss of jobs and the decay of inner city areas, with typical areas losing between 16 and 20 percent of their populations during the 1970s. This had a direct and immediate repercussion on policy with new town programmes reduced and inner city revival encouraged (Hall. 002). Hall (2002) claims during the 1980s the trust of Thatcherite planning policy was strongly anti-interventionist with strong emphasis placed upon the theme of unleashing private initiative. Local authorities were encouraged to allow new industrial and commercial developments that created jobs, resulting in the British landscape being transformed by edge of town industrial estates, warehousing units, hotels and superstores.
This was combined with ‘the principle of enterprise zones: areas of the country which were to be free of normal planning controls, and in which firms were to enjoy a ten-year freedom from local rates and certain other fiscal concessions’ (Hall. 2002). This varied in character from inner cities through peripheral conurbation areas and areas of industrial dereliction. However after 1987 more weight was placed on urban development corporation as a mechanism for rapid assembly, development and disposal of urban land and on the simplified planning regime as a general tool of development throughout the country (Hall. 002). Since 1996 the Major and Blair government were compelled to respond to new household projections that showed despite modestly increasing populations there was likely to be a significant increase in housing demand due to more people choosing to live alone for varying reasons (Hall, 2002). The result was an Urban White Paper that concluded ‘the post- Second World War planning system itself was entering some kind of crisis: not terminal, perhaps, but prompting a basic interrogation into the way it was functioning’ (Hall, 2003).
Consequently in 1991 the government modified ‘the comprehensive Planning Act….. essentially, a consolidation and updating of the original 1947 legislation – to introduce a plan-led system’ (Hall, 2003). This has been enhanced by a Green Paper on the modernisation of the planning system in 2001 which included the replacement of structure plans by regional spatial strategies. This has continued with regions of the UK producing strategies including Northern Ireland.
While Rydin & Thormley (2002) states, the Labour government’s political priorities are centred upon social inclusion and more participatory government, with buzz words such as sustainability and brownfield sites which have consequences upon Town and Country Planning. It can clearly be argued that ‘the present townscape is the accumulated record of distinct morphology periods’ (Conzen 1968), likewise that the present landscape is the accumulation of different periods of legislation including public health and formal Town and Country Planning Acts.
The role of political interaction in the development and evolution of Town and Country Planning cannot be overlooked as it is a representation of society at that specific point in time. Ultimately though in the case of Town and Country Planning as we know it today, it is recognised that it formed out of health issues from the early 1900s and a desire to protect the countryside.