Black and white photo of a row of cottages.
View at the rear of Wyatt's Almshouses, looking north-east © Historic England OP30155
View at the rear of Wyatt's Almshouses, looking north-east © Historic England OP30155

The Mother of All Planning Acts

by Dr Deborah Mays, Head of Listing Advice, Historic England

In January 1947, Mr Silkin, the minister proposing the Town and Country Planning Act, astutely advised Parliament that the proposed legislation "is the most comprehensive and far reaching planning Measure which has ever been placed before this House." He concluded: "When this Bill becomes law, we shall have created an instrument of which we can be justly proud; we shall have begun a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty, and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have ever done before."[1] 

Seventy years later, in this online debate we are celebrating the achievement while also considering where the consequences of this ‘mother of all planning acts’ find us now. Silkin noted, for example, that ‘a new type of planner’ would need to be trained to carry out the broader conception of planning instated in the act. We know that Local Planning Authority officers have faced economic challenges to doing the specialised work of conserving the historic environment. In this issue of Heritage Online Debate, we’ve invited key players in the built environment to give us their thoughts.  

Listing buildings

Protecting our historic buildings through listing is relatively new. It was not born in 1877 when the Society for Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded. Not even with the passing of the 1882 Ancient Monuments Protection Act, as many people believe. Not until the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act[2] did it become a requirement for the Secretary of State to compile "a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest,...with a view to the guidance of local authorities in the performance of their functions."

The ’47 Act introduced protection for the occupied living and evolving built environment, making it relevant to all of us. Once lists were in place, its successor in 1968 acquired teeth to assist in the positive management of change to listed places, ensuring that their special character continues and thrives.

Listing is a key piece of the planning jigsaw and fits into a framework which necessarily evolved in the preceding decades. We’re grateful to Sir Patrick Geddes for establishing modern principles of planning in 'Cities in Evolution', 1915. And we credit Clough Williams Ellis with demonstrating the need to protect historic fabric in 'England and the Octopus', 1928. Both of these works helped to pave the way.  

The ravages of war and the thirst for a brave new world after 1945 emphasised the vulnerability of our rich heritage. The need to protect historic places came plainly into view with the realisation that we should treasure what we have because we cannot replace it once it has gone.

Today, with around 377,700 listed buildings on the National Heritage List for England and 99% of the population within a mile of a designated structure, new challenges face listing. With a stretched and volatile global economy, we must continue to demonstrate to politicians and the public why this statutory obligation is as important now as ever.

Accusations that the List is elitist are unfounded. The first listings in 1947 were not large country houses or their estate buildings. They were rural barns and early churches, town buildings, a Friends’ Meeting House, an alms house, post office, bank and court house. This common inheritance, traditional fabric familiar to us all on a daily basis, is the heart of what is protected through listing. If you browse the List, you’ll find buildings from all walks of life, arguably more representative of ‘ordinary lives’ than those of any elite.

The descriptive parts of each list entry, until very recently intended for planners’ eyes alone, are now accessible to all and the language faces unjust scrutiny. Digestible histories now provide a more accessible account on more recent entries. It would be fulfilling to provide fuller narratives for all of them.  

Happily, we have been able to open the listings so that anyone can now contribute and show how a listed building is relevant to their lives through Enriching the List. As momentum gathers, the value of this community resource will become increasingly evident.

The rich interest which these buildings bring us merits celebration. At the same time we must ensure that this does not undermine or make light of the List’s primary intent as a tool for local authorities in their management of the historic environment. Listing brings statutory obligations and responsibilities so we assess each one with rigorous care. It is an accountable system, subject to review. In striving to show how historic fabric is relevant to the unbeliever through capturing associations, we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

We all own the benefits of listing - whether we know it or not. It is relevant to us all. Demonstrating to governments how our historic environment contributes to their wider agenda must be a top priority in this time of funding constraints and new targets.  The evidence we provide annually in Heritage Counts and editions of Heritage Works shows value beyond direct economics but we have much more to do.  

Indirectly, for example, historic fabric and its restoration support the green interest in reducing carbon emissions and protecting diminishing resources. Through volunteering, naturally ventilated environments, and the pleasure of belonging to a narrative thread in the story of our neighbourhoods, our heritage contributes to the mental and physical well-being of us all. We must not allow complex relationships and interdependencies to obscure the value of heritage. We need to make clear the contribution that heritage makes to our national priorities.

Listed buildings sew many rich seams in the tapestry our lives. Their bricks and mortar anchor a sense of place, identity, and belonging to a narrative that underpins our well-being, our quality of life. Liz Davidson, with a career promoting buildings’ special architectural and historic interest, explains that "…during the course of a building preservation project, not just the stonework and the roof get repaired, but also people’s hope, purpose, identity, community spirit, optimism and courage to take control of their future…".  A picture painted without them is a very sorry one.


[1] Hansard, Minister, Mr Silkin, introducing the second reading of the Town and Country Planning Bill, HC Deb 29 January 1947 vol 432 cc947-1075 947

[2] S28 (1), Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

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Editor's note: Information correct at time of original publication. The 'Enriching the List' project has since become the Missing Pieces Project. Find out more.