Happy Birthday Town and Country Planning Act 1947

February 9, 2017

By Peter Dixon

Almost all of the main components of the current planning system are to be found in the 1947 Act and it is a credit to those involved that the essentials of the system as they were laid out in 1947 in the economic, political and social context of that time, have survived largely intact into the present day.

The then  Minister of Town and Country Planning, Lewis Silkin, opened the second reading debate on the proposed legislation on 29 January 1947 and the factors which he identified then to justify such a “comprehensive and far reaching planning measure” are striking familiar to a modern audience. He said that the:

“…conflicting demands for land must be dovetailed together.  If each is considered in isolation, the common interest is bound to suffer. Housing must be so located in relation to industry that workers are not compelled to make long, tiring and expensive journeys to and from work. Nor must our already large towns be permitted to sprawl, and expand, so as to eat up the adjacent rural areas and make access to the countryside and to the amenities in the centre of the town more difficult.  Green belts must be left round towns…”

A major part of the solution was to be effective forward planning and a substantial part of Mr Silkin’s speech was taken up with describing the new arrangements for the preparation of development plans that were intended to be quicker and simpler to prepare and review than ‘old style’ planning schemes under the 1932 Act which had been heavily criticised.

The arrangements under the 1932 Act had permitted urban and rural district Councils to prepare planning schemes, as a result of which there were more than 1,400 authorities with plan-making powers in England and Wales.   Mr Silkin described it as:

“…obvious that the preparation of plans by so many authorities  – even if they did all prepare plans – is not likely to produce anything in the way of comprehensive or co-ordinated planning.”

Voluntary co-operation by the establishment of joint working arrangements between neighbouring authorities had been tried (there was no statutory duty to co-operate in those days) but found not to provide the answer:

“I do not for a moment wish to decry the good and effective work that has been carried out by many of them, but the disadvantages of joint planning committees must be obvious.  They offer opportunities for log-rolling and bargaining by the representatives of the different planning authorities and the resulting plan is often no better than, or different from, the combined plans of the separate authorities.   Let me quote from a report which I recently received: ‘Members of joint planning committees are apt to concern themselves only with matters of direct interest to the district they represent and do not look at problems on a regional basis…’”

Mr Silkin described the process of co-ordinating the plans of more than 1,400 authorities as “an impossible task”.  The solution he envisaged (and embodied in the 1947 Act) was planning at the county or county borough level undertaken by “a responsible authority, equipped with fully qualified staff, and possessing the necessary financial resources.” Such planning at a county level, supported by widespread consultation (including the use of leaflets, models and films as well as talks by planning technicians) would ensure that the new-style plans would reflect “actual needs, democratically expressed” of everyone with an interest in the development process, not just landowners or Council officials, and thereby prevent undue influence by the “noisy minority”.

In subsequent years of course county-level planning was first augmented with regional planning guidance then replaced altogether by regional plans which in turn became increasingly controversial in proportion to the amounts of housing and other development which they allocated upon unreceptive local areas. The current government’s emphasis upon planning at a neighbourhood level is a reaction to that and is an important plank of the strategy to secure more housing, more quickly.  In contrast to the analysis presented by Mr Silkin, the parliamentary written statement by his successor Gavin Barwell on 12 December 2016 noted that where neighbourhood plans are in force and allocate land for housing, they provide on average for 10% more housing than had otherwise been planned.   New legislation is before parliament designed to further strengthen neighbourhood planning and the Housing White Paper proposes further reform.  It will be interesting to see whether those measures will be a cause for celebration in years to come.