A Short History of the UK Town Planning System

Town planning, also known as urban planning, is the process of designing and managing the physical and social development of towns and cities. The history of town planning in the UK is a long and fascinating one, dating back to the Roman occupation of the country.

Town Planning in the Roman Period

During the Roman period, many towns in the UK were planned and built as military bases or trading centres. The Romans applied their advanced knowledge of engineering and urban planning to create well-organised and efficient settlements. Many Roman towns featured a gridiron street pattern, with a central forum or market square, and a network of well-built roads linking them to other settlements. One of the most famous examples of Roman town planning in the UK is the city of Bath, which was founded as a spa town in the 1st century AD.

Town Planning in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, most towns in the UK grew organically around a central market square or church. The layout of these towns was often haphazard and disorganised, with narrow, winding streets and irregularly shaped plots of land. As the population grew and towns became more crowded, there was a need for more formal planning. Some towns began to introduce rudimentary zoning laws to control the location and type of buildings, but these were often difficult to enforce. Despite these challenges, the Middle Ages saw the emergence of some important urban planning concepts, including the creation of public spaces and the provision of basic infrastructure such as water supplies and waste disposal systems.

The rise of Modern Town Planning

The construction of the New Town of Edinburgh in the 18th century is one of the earliest recorded examples of planned urbanisation in the UK. The project was initiated in 1766 by a group of city councillors who wanted to alleviate overcrowding and improve living conditions in Edinburgh’s Old Town. The new development was designed by architect James Craig, who created a gridiron street pattern with a central square, now known as Charlotte Square.

The first town planning legislation was the Housing of the Working Classes Act of 1890. It was introduced in response to the rapid urbanisation and industrialisation of the country – there were growing concerns about the poor living conditions in urban slums, where many people were living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The act required local authorities to survey their areas and identify any housing that was unfit for human habitation. The authorities were then given the power to force landlords to improve their properties or to purchase and demolish them if they were beyond repair. The act also set out minimum standards for new housing developments, including requirements for ventilation, lighting, and drainage. It was an important step forward in the history of social housing in the UK, and it paved the way for further legislation aimed at improving housing conditions for all members of society.

Garden City Movement

The influential Garden City movement, which advocated for the development of self-contained, greenfield communities, was founded in the UK in 1898. It was founded by social reformer Ebenezer Howard, who believed that the overcrowding and pollution of industrial towns and cities were detrimental to human health and wellbeing. Howard’s solution was to create new, self-sufficient communities that would combine the best aspects of city and country living. These communities, called garden cities, were designed to be surrounded by green belts and open spaces, with housing, shops, and workplaces all located within easy walking distance. The garden city movement was based on the principles of social justice, environmental sustainability, and community participation, and it quickly gained popularity in the UK and around the world. Today, many of the principles of the garden city movement have been incorporated into modern urban planning, including the concept of green belts and the importance of community engagement in shaping urban development.

1947 Town and Country Planning Act

The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was a landmark piece of legislation in the UK that laid the foundation for the modern system of town and country planning. The act established a comprehensive planning framework for the whole of the UK, aimed at promoting the social, economic, and environmental well-being of communities.

Under the act, local authorities were given the power to create development plans that would guide the use of land and buildings in their areas. The act also established a system of development control, which required planning permission to be obtained for most types of development.

The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was a response to the post-war housing crisis and the need to rebuild communities that had been destroyed during the war. It represented a significant shift in thinking about urban planning, emphasising the importance of planning for the long-term and the need to balance the interests of different stakeholders.

Today, the principles of the 1947 act continue to shape the UK’s approach to town and country planning, helping to ensure that development is sustainable, equitable, and responsive to the needs of communities.

Town Planning in the 1960s and 1970s

The 1960s and 1970s were a period of significant change in UK town planning. During this time, the government introduced a range of new policies aimed at modernising cities and improving the quality of life for residents. One of the most notable developments was the creation of new towns, which were designed to accommodate population growth and relieve pressure on existing urban centres. These towns were built from scratch, often on greenfield sites, and featured a mix of residential, commercial, and industrial spaces.

Other key initiatives included slum clearance programs, which involved demolishing old and dilapidated housing stock and replacing it with new, modern housing developments. In addition, the government invested heavily in infrastructure projects, such as new motorways and public transportation systems, to improve connectivity between cities and regions. However, some of these initiatives were controversial, with critics arguing that they had a negative impact on established communities and led to the destruction of historic buildings and landmarks.

Today, the legacy of town planning in the 1960s and 1970s is mixed, with some developments still regarded as innovative and forward-thinking, while others are seen as misguided or damaging.

Renewed interest in urban regeneration

The 1990s and 2000s saw a renewed interest in urban regeneration in the UK, as governments and local authorities sought to revitalise cities and improve the quality of life for residents. One of the key drivers of this renewed interest was the recognition that many urban areas had suffered from decades of neglect and decline, leading to high levels of poverty, crime, and social exclusion. To address these issues, the government introduced a range of policies and initiatives aimed at regenerating urban areas, such as the New Deal for Communities program, which provided funding and support for community-led regeneration projects in some of the UK’s most deprived areas.

Another major development during this period was the emphasis on sustainability and environmentalism in urban planning. This was reflected in initiatives such as the Sustainable Communities Plan, which aimed to promote more sustainable patterns of development by prioritising public transportation, green spaces, and energy-efficient buildings.

One of the most high-profile examples of urban regeneration during this period was the London Docklands development, which transformed a run-down industrial area into a thriving business and residential district. This project, which involved the creation of new infrastructure and public spaces, as well as the restoration of historic buildings, became a model for urban regeneration projects around the world.

The renewed interest in urban regeneration in the 1990s and 2000s marked a significant shift in the UK’s approach to urban planning, placing greater emphasis on community participation, sustainability, and the integration of different sectors and stakeholders. Today, these principles continue to inform urban planning and development strategies in the UK and beyond.

Town Planning in the UK Today

Town planning in the UK today is focused on creating sustainable, liveable communities that meet the needs of residents and support economic growth. Key priorities include promoting sustainable development, improving access to affordable housing, and reducing carbon emissions.

One of the main strategies for achieving these goals is through the creation of local development plans, which set out a vision for the use of land and buildings in a given area. These plans are developed by local authorities in consultation with stakeholders and the wider community and are designed to balance the interests of different groups, such as residents, developers, and environmentalists.

In addition, there is a growing emphasis on the use of technology and data in town planning, with the aim of creating more efficient and effective planning processes. This includes the use of geographic information systems (GIS) to map and analyse land use patterns, as well as the use of virtual reality and other digital tools to visualise proposed developments and engage with the public.

Another key trend in town planning in the UK today is the focus on social and environmental sustainability. This is reflected in initiatives such as the creation of green spaces, the promotion of public transportation and active travel, and the implementation of energy-efficient building standards.

While challenges remain, such as the need to address the housing crisis and reduce carbon emissions, there is a growing recognition of the importance of effective and responsible town planning in creating vibrant and resilient communities for the future.

Town planning in the UK is governed by a number of professional organisations, including the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). Planning House are a team of independent Planning Consultants who are members of the RTPI. If you need help with a planning issue, please don’t hesitate to get in touch

History of the UK Town Planning System