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The Rise and Fall of the 1947 Planning System

by Hugh Ellis, Head of Policy, Town and Country Planning Association

The Town and Country Planning Association's (TCPA's) current review of the planning system has forced us to confront how far the practice and ideals of planning have fallen over recent years. One of the many myths used to justify current 'reforms' is that the 1947 planning framework was a centralised, Stalinist experiment which has no relevance in modern society. This is simply wrong.

The 1947 system was an evolution of legislation designed to regulate the built environment, which began with very basic public health legislation in the 1870s [1]. This resulted in the development of millions of byelaw terraced houses but failed to provide green space or community facilities. The first planning legislation in 1909 [2] was the result of concern over basic living standards and the wider campaign for high-quality place making, led by the Garden Cities movement. The DNA of town planning was a complex fusion between these two pragmatic and idealistic forces.

Planning in the inter-war period was marked by some notable successes, particularly the increase in subsidies for public housing and the adoption of demanding housing design requirements (which far exceed today's standards) [3]. Around 1.1 million council houses were built between the wars, while over 300,000 were demolished in slum clearance programs.

However, the planning system was weak and fragmented and could not deal with the chronically-poor housing conditions [4]; nor could it deal with expansion of private sector housing which, particularly in London, had begun to sprawl along arterial routes. There was also a real concern to deal with the widespread industrial dereliction of vast areas of the industrial North and Midlands. The Government established the Barlow Commission [5] in 1938 which examined the evidence of this decline and argued for a comprehensive, planned response.

Image of Funerary buildings at Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery), London, known as the
The Funerary buildings at Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery), London, known as the "Rolls Royce" of London's Jewish cemeteries © Chris Redgrave/Historic England

The wartime experiences of strategic planning - a need for large-scale reconstruction and wider political imperatives to sustain the morale of what was a 'citizen's' army - each helped realise the 1947 system. This was a special political context in which there was an acknowledgment of the legitimate role of the state in the development of land, a consensus which has not applied for the last 40 years.

The technical case for the 1947 system was impressive and authoritative. The publication of the Barlow report (and the two minority reports) in 1940, which recommended a national plan, was supplemented by the Scott report [6] on land utilisation and the Uthwatt report [7] on compensation and betterment. Lord Reith was commissioned to examine the implementation of new towns [8]. The chairs of each of these committees were in every sense conservative and produced practical assessments of the economic and legal challenges of effective planning.

The case for effective planning was not just limited to technical planning reports; it was a mainstream part of the wider construction of the welfare state and was featured strongly in the 1942 Beveridge report. It's worth reflecting on why the public remain committed to the NHS while there is little or no public awareness of the value of planning.

The clarity and quality of the reports upon which the 1947 system was based are still striking. Uthwatt, for example, focused primarily on the question of betterment. In short, if the state had nationalised the right to develop land then it follows that the increase in value created by the grant of permission should accrue to the state. The report recommended a comprehensive land tax system.

Cemetery headstones and memorials
Willesden Jewish Cemetery (United Synagogue Cemetery), London, 1872-73 listed at Grade II as one of five new listings to mark 70 years of protecting England’s historic buildings © Historic England

The '1947 planning system' is shorthand for a range of measures which, taken together, form the basis for land management in the post-war era. As well as the designation of National Parks [9], the system was framed with both positive, large-scale place making powers, embodied in the New Towns Act (1946), and powers for more local control and positive planning in the Town and Country Planning Act (1947). Both measures were intended to be delivered as a package, but there was an implicit understanding that the 1946 act was designed to deal with major population changes such as decentralisation of population in the South East and industrial renewal in the North.

Complex though this now seems, it created a system capable of fulfilling the social, environmental and economic objectives of reconstruction and long-term land management. There is a logic and clarity to the structure of the system which has never been matched and it delivers on housing and conservation objectives in an unprecedentedly successful manner.

Above all the 1947 system had a radical heart. By nationalising development rights, landowners lost the right to develop their land. They could enjoy the existing use, and those whose land was about to be developed could apply for one-off compensation. To develop land for a new use, you had to apply for planning permission. It gave the majority of the power to decide these applications to local councils creating the biggest shift in power between landowning interest and ordinary citizen in British history. Coupled with comprehensive land tax, the 1947 system was elegant in structure and poetic in outcome.

Perhaps because of its ambition the 1947 system was operational for just six years before major reform in 1954 [10] removed the land tax provisions by abolishing the development charge. Despite its major contribution to the fabric of our nation, planning is now disparaged by politicians, business and communities. Many of the issues 1947 solved are now a confused mess like how to deal with strategic housing growth sustainably. Heavily deregulated and underfunded, the notion of public interest planning focused on sustainable development is effectively dead in England. It seems that as a nation we will have to relearn why 1947 is so important to us and why its principals are as relevant and vital to our society as they were 70 years ago.

References

[1] Public Health Act (1875)

[2] Housing and Town Planning Act (1909)

[3] The Tudor Walters Report. (1919) Report of the Committee on Questions of building Construction in connection of the Provision of dwellings for the Working Classes, Cd9191, London:HMSO

[4] There was further planning legislation in 1919, 1923 and 1932 but other than London it did not result in many examples of successful and comprehensive planning schemes

[5] Report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of the Industrial Population. (1940) Cmd 6153. London:HMSO.

[6] Report of the Committee on Land Utilisation in Rural Areas. (1942) (The Scott Report) Cmd 6378, London:HMSO.

[7] The Final report of the Expert Committee on Compensation and Betterment. (1941) ( The Uthwatt Report) Cmd 6368, London:HMSO

[8] The New Towns Committee Final Report. (1946) (The Reith Report) Cmd 6876, London:HMSO.

[9] National parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949)

[10] The Town and Country Planning Act (1954)

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