The 1947 Act: Winners and Losers

By James Stevens, Director for Cities, Home Builders Federation

In 2011, the philosopher Roger Scruton put his weight behind the Daily Telegraph's Hands Off Our Land campaign. Initiated to resist the government's latest set of planning reforms, the campaign brought together the National Trust, the CPRE, English Heritage and the RTPI. Scruton feared that the government's reforms would unleash a wave of low density housebuilding in the countryside in an attempt to revive the recession-hit national economy. As Scruton remarked to the Daily Telegraph:

There are few success stories in environmental politics. But the 1947 Act is one of them. And its success is due to one fact above all, which is that it removes the default position from the developer…The Government justifies its new proposals as instruments of economic growth. The 1947 Act has certainly been an obstacle to economic growth…Thank God for obstacles to economic growth.

Daily Telegraph, 8 September 2011

Scruton keenly appreciated that the 1947 Act heralded a decisive change in the relations of land ownership. On the 'appointed day' of 1 July 1948 the act curtailed significantly the "liberty of an owner to develop and use his land as he thinks fit" as the legal commentator Sir Desmond Heap concluded. Development rights were nationalised: land owners would need to apply to local authorities for permission to develop their land. The act was a great success in reversing the sprawl and ribbon development of the 1930s. It helped protect landscapes and localities valued by the public. Great strides were made by Duncan Sandys with his green belt legislation in 1955 and his Civic Amenities Act in 1967. The protection of the natural and historic built environments has been one of the planning system's great post-war successes. These protections would have been difficult to achieve without the apparatus of the 1947 system.

Image of the exterior of Underhill in Holme, West Yorkshire. Designed by Arthur Quarmby, this environmentally sensitive, underground house disappears into the rolling green moor, creating a harmony between natural and man-made worlds
Underhill in Holme, West Yorkshire. Designed by Arthur Quarmby, this environmentally sensitive, underground house disappears into the rolling green moor, creating a harmony between natural and man-made worlds © James O. Davies/Historic England

The planning system's role in helping to house the growing population of the post-war period - the other major public interest justification for 1947 Act - has been much less successful. The housing crisis has deepened as the deficit between housing need and supply has increased. The crisis became pronounced following the introduction of the plan-led system in 1991 when local authorities were granted far more control over the scale and location of development - a situation that continues under the NPPF. The current plan-led system requires all local authorities to produce a plan which assesses housing need and allocates land. Unfortunately the production of local plans has been disappointing, especially in the areas of the country where need is greatest and where employment growth is strongest. In 2012 the government expected that every local authority in the country would have an up-to-date plan within a year. Five years on only 41% of local authorities have one. York Council hasn't had a plan since 1954. Plan production is poorest in the green belt authorities surrounding London and the other major cities. The local authorities in these areas have little interest in undertaking up-to-date assessments of housing need and allocating the land required to meet those needs. Why should they when they can enjoy the protections provided by the 1947 planning system which allows them to refuse applications while under no pressure to plan positively for development by publishing a forward plan. We have a planning system in name only.

One might have thought that the failure to produce plans would bring planning as a discipline into disrepute. But this failure, like the housing crisis more generally, has been tolerated for a long time. This suggests that the general public are broadly content with the planning system as it is, and we have achieved the right balance: we have prioritised environmental protection (in its wider sense) over the economy and housing. The system, while being imperfect, nevertheless, provides vital safeguards that could not be provided in a market orientated system.

Our planning system was originally justified on the basis that it would promote growth while also protecting Britain's environment and character. It was founded on the assumption that local government would manage development more efficiently than the market left to its own devices. The history of the post-war period shows that this optimism was misplaced. Roger Scruton would probably welcome this failure.

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