The Impact of the Great War on Town and Country Planning in Britain

Having been immersed in the world of Planning for many years, we are familiar with the concept that Planning and war have a long been entwined. So, on Remembrance Day, when we remember all of those who gave their lives in the line of duty, we thought that it would also be fitting to think about the significant role war had in establishing Town and Country Planning practices in Britain.

In our search for information, we stumbled across a fantastic lecture, written by Nigel Mayhew and delivered by Gregory Jones QC.

Mayhew & Jones conclude that, whilst it is most frequently claimed that the discipline of town and country planning emerged in the wake of the second World War, the Great War (WW1) played a very significant role in establishing contemporary town planning practices both in Britain and on the Continent.

Whilst the second World War produced the Barlow, Scott and Uthwatt commissions, the New Towns Act 1946 and the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The Royal Institute of Town Planning was launched with an inaugural dinner in January 1914, and it was formally established on 4 September 1914 when its Articles of Association were signed, which suggests that town planning was not invented by the 1947 Act or even as a reaction to 1930‟s ribbon development.

It is acknowledged that the philanthropic origins of town planning in Britain are most clearly visible in the model villages built by prominent industrialists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and that it might seem that Planning had fully matured before the outbreak of the Great War. However, Mayhew & Jones point out that in Britain at least, the emergent planning establishments influence had in many ways remained largely academic.

Here are a few excerpts from the lecture that we think perfectly demonstrate the role war had on establishing the discipline of Town Planning. A discipline that emerged during a time when we were facing great adversity, and that has developed over the last 100 years to now help lead the fight of a new generation – the ongoing fight of social inequality and the new, emerging challenge of climate change.

“The 1909 Act required Local Authorities to pay full market value (plus ten per cent compensation) for land purchased compulsorily and as a result they were unsurprisingly reticent to engage with the Acts discretionary provisions. Just thirteen schemes were put forward nationally of which two received approval. Economics trumped social progress and planning was left in the private sphere, unimplemented save for projects like Letchworth and Hampstead Garden Suburb, which in truth resembled private experiments rather than early examples of a new age of planned development.”

“War changed everything. Wartime industry required significant provision of housing for those who worked in munitions factories and the government was forced to build on an unprecedented scale to meet this demand. To facilitate its building programme the wartime government passed two Housing Acts in 1914 and 1915. Under the first the state agreed to subsidise ten per cent of the cost of new development, empowering the Local Government Board to spend £4 million on housing. This was a crucial turning point; war had at last provided the necessary stimulus for economic state intervention in the housing sector. In fact, by the end of the war the Treasury had funded thirty-eight new estates, four built by local authorities and the remainder by private enterprise.”

“Just as important for planning’s development were the social and economic conditions that the War left behind in 1918. War had created an intractable housing dilemma; the cost of building had risen dramatically and at the same time there was an urgent shortage of housing. Men had fought or died for the nation and in post-war Britain fear of civil unrest and the perceived threat of industrial revolution made the provision of quality housing for the working classes a priority. It was against this background that Lloyd George made his famous statement on 23 November 1918 that “slums are not fit homes for the men who have won this war”, in effect announcing his commitment to what are commonly referred to as “Homes Fit for Heroes”.”

You can read the full lecture here:

The Impact of the Great War on Town and Country Planning in Britain