Housing, Planning and Democracy

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, July 2004 | Go to article overview

Housing, Planning and Democracy


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


ALTHOUGH it might sometimes be hard to discern, there is a long history of town and country planning in Great Britain. The first signs (setting aside the planned towns of the Roman period) come from the thirteenth century, when the Cinque Ports of Rye and Winchelsea were regularly laid out to a chequerboard pattern in imitation of the planned 'bastides' of South-West France. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren made an attempt to have the City replanned on a fine and regular layout; this was defeated by the combined efforts of the property-owners, who wanted to keep their plots just as they had been--medieval street pattern and all. They deeply distrusted any suggestion that their holdings should be pooled and then shared out again; since they were dealing with the government of Charles II, this was wise of them--and an early instance of the recalcitrance of British property-owners when faced with well-intentioned Government schemes.

Large landowners did most of the planning in the next two centuries. The Earls of Bedford laid out Covent Garden; when they became Dukes, Bloomsbury; the Dukes of Westminster, Belgravia and Pimlico. Other examples are to be found from Cornwall to the Moray Firth, by way of Edinburgh New Town and Newcastle on Tyne. Money was the driving force, and the need to cater to those who had it. The nineteenth century saw some planning for social purposes: Sir Titus Salt, for example, built a planned town for his mill workers at Saltaire, and housing for the deserving poor, even if you didn't employ them, became a major charity. The century concluded with Ebenezer Howard's 'Garden Cities' at Letchworth and Welwyn, plus Hampstead Garden Suburb. General legislation, suggesting that the whole country should have some sort of planning applied to it, dates from the 1930s. Local councils were charged with the duty of allocating land for building. In their anxiety not to offend any landowner, they allocated enough land to provide housing for 300 million people, when the population was about 40 million. This was, of course, tantamount to no planning at all, and house-builders could and did go on lining main roads with ribbon developments. (Providing services to new houses is expensive, and if the road is already there that is a great saving.)

The importance of housing in the planning system is obvious; housing takes up about half the land surface of any town. The next most important land users are, firstly, industry and warehousing, and, next, education. Counting another way, highways are the second user: 40 per cent of an old town, nowadays about 25 per cent. Housing is also, of course, a necessity. The idea that there is some sort of public duty on Government to see that people get housed goes back to the mid-Victorians; the first Housing Act was passed under Disraeli in the 1870s. The first major 'housing drive' came after the First World War under the slogan 'homes fit for heroes', when the Ministry of Health under Dr Addison was able to use the larger, better-funded and run local councils created in the last years of Queen Victoria's reign to build very large numbers of decent small houses and to allocate them to the people on their waiting lists who had the most 'points' (you got points by having been in the Army, having a disabled wife or parent, living in pretty awful conditions, but above all by having lots of children). The estates built then by the London County Council are still not the worst parts of South London.

It was in the 1920s and 30s that one of the most distinctive features of British society took root: owner-occupation. In 1900 under 10 per cent of Britons owned, or were buying, their homes. By 2000, it was 72 per cent, and still rising. This is not just an economic factor: owner-occupation goes far beyond a business calculation. Buying your home implies that you are a solid citizen, with a stake in society, able to plan ahead and provide for your family. …

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