Town & Country Planning

4. County Council Services

Town & Country Planning

HISTORIANS tell us that the conscious planning of cities was studied and to some extent practised in every age until it was swept away with many lovely things in that great outburst of materialism which was called the Industrial Revolution. To-day events move so quickly, social and economic life has become so vast and complicated and building development has spread so swiftly that the nineteenth-century system of leaving the pattern of the towns and country to settle itself as best it may has proved thoroughly unsatisfactory.

Consequently it has been realized that the planning of town and country requires control by the Government and local authorities, so that now when we speak of “town and country planning” we mean the art and science not only of beautiful and efficient design but also of ensuring that the design is carried out.

EVOLUTION OF STATUTORY PLANNING

We have already outlined the Acts of Parliament which control town planning. The evolution of these powers is interesting because it shows, gradually gaining ground, the public consciousness of the problems. The Housing, Town Planning, etc., Act of 1909 dealt with town planning as a further aspect of housing and in certain circumstances enabled district councils to make and enforce planning schemes for land which was in the course of development. It is of interest to note that Ruislip–Northwood Urban District Council, which had its first scheme approved in 1914, was one of the pioneer councils under this Act. An amending Act was passed in 1919, and in 1925 a consolidating Town Planning Act replaced its predecessors. This for the first time gave town planning a genuine status of its own. Then a great advance was made by the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932; this at last made it possible to prepare a scheme for any land, whether or not there were already buildings upon it, with the general object of controlling development and securing sanitary conditions, amenities and convenience. Although some ill-considered building and unsatisfactory layout have occurred since 1932, a vast amount of even worse building and development was prevented by this Act. This emphasizes one of the main faults of the system until then—namely, that the powers were negative and restrictive. Local authorities were often able to prevent bad and ill-considered development, but they had insufficient powers to encourage or enforce good development. Even their negative and restrictive powers were hemmed in by the difficulty that the prohibition of building gave the disappointed builder a claim for compensation. This was a vital problem and it made planning authorities pause before prohibiting building of many kinds which they would have liked to prevent.

The next important evolution in planning practice was during the second world war. During those years there was little or no private building and there was a great opportunity for the country to study its long-term interests and consider whether or not land was being wisely used. Thus it was that during those years a separate Ministry ofTown and Country Planningwas set up by the Government to deal specifically with these problems. The successful climax to this greatest evolution of plan-fling legislation was realized in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, which for the first time directed the preparation of CC development plans” for the whole country and attempted to deal with the difficulties of compensation, which in the early days had stood in the way of ideal planning.

THE OBJECTS AND PRACTICE OF TOWN PLANNING

It must be confessed that all over the country modern towns present a sad contrast with the ideal. The road plan has become confused and indirect, so that road-users constantly have to stop to ask the way and often get held up in traffic blocks. Factories and shops have been intermingled with houses, spoiling the amenities which should characterize a residential area and interfering with the convenience which should be a feature of shopping centres or factory estates. Many people have to live a long way from their work and are faced with crowded, uncomfortable journeys at the rush hours. No care used to be taken to ensure that schools, shops and churches were within reasonable reach of every home and, perhaps worst of all, acres and acres of houses have been built with no accessible park or playground, so that children have grown up out of reach of the country and green fields.

From most of these faults Middlesex, in common with many other urbanized areas, has certainly suffered. Those who are old enough to remember the outer suburbs before the two world wars have seen these things happening and have witnessed the relentless spread of building estates.

By contrast, if the great increase in the population of Middlesex, amounting to 800,000 persons in the eighteen years from 1920, could have been accommodated in accordance with a well-designed plan, then life for many people would have been quite different. Buildings would have been grouped together in recognizable neighbourhoods, each with its social needs properly catered for. There would have been a “neighbourhood centre” within easy reach of every house. The shops would be neatly grouped there in a position away from the main streets with heavy traffic and there would have been a playground near at hand where mothers could safely leave their children while they shopped.

At a planned “neighbourhood centre” there should be community buildings, such as a branch library, a public hail and other buildings where people congregate. The sites for churches should be carefully chosen, giving better opportunity for architecture worthy of its purpose. Throughout the neighbourhood the street plan should be designed to keep the residential roads quiet and free from traffic. The heavier traffic would be led elsewhere by wide, well-planned roads, without front gates and garage entrances opening upon them to the mutual disadvantage of both frontages and traffic.

This principle has been called planning by “neighbourhood units” and it is easy to see that if the plan of the neighbourhood is thought out in advance it can also be decided beforehand what schools, playgrounds and parks will be required and which will be the most convenient sites for them. By planning towns as a series of neighbourhood units an efficient town can be built up around a real town centre which would accommodate the more important churches, shops, public buildings and commercial offices; factory sites also could be chosen so as to be within easy reach of the homes of the workers.

There are many other objects which good planning can secure. They cannot all be mentioned here, but, broadly speaking, the objects of planning can be classified under three main headings : “efficiency “__meaning quick, safe travel and every facility for trade, industry and social life; “amenity “—meaning pleasant and artistic conditions in home surroundings; and “economy “—meaning the planning in advance of all public services such as schools, libraries, hospitals, clinics, post offices, fire stations, roads, bridges, drains, water, gas and electricity supply, parks, playgrounds and so on, instead of piecemeal provision when the need becomes urgent.

THE SPECIAL PROBLEM OF GREATER LONDON

As people begin to grasp these ideas the first thing to be realized is the possibility of applying them to new towns which may be built in the future. The size, population and character of the town can be decided in advance and the plan can be designed and carried out. The problem is how to succeed in applying similar principles to existing towns and, when the enormous complexity of Greater London, of which Middlesex is a part, is considered, it is difficult to see how this problem is to be tackled. It has often been said that London is too large, and it is still expanding, but until 1944 constructive proposals were lacking as to what steps should be taken to put matters right.

Professor Sir Patrick Abercrombie in his Greater London Plan, 1944, described four concentric rings in the structure of Greater London. The inmost is the urban ring, where density of population is too high and congestion of every kind is at its worst. The next is the suburban ring, where the density of development is, on the whole, tolerable. The third is the Green Belt ring, immediately surrounding the suburbs. Here at last can be seen an “edge” to London, but it is in imminent danger of encroachment. The essence of the Greater London Plan is to preserve this Green Belt ring free from building, thus, firstly, setting a limit to the further spread of London and, secondly, providing a rural setting for the metropolis, where organized games can be played and wide areas of park and woodlands enjoyed. This Green Belt ring round Greater London is intended to be five to seven miles wide and to include the lovely estates purchased under the Green Belt Act—mentioned in an earlier chapter. Lastly, the fourth surrounding ring, which could be termed the outer country ring, is intended to be normal countryside with towns and villages situated in open agricultural landscape.

The Greater London plan was a statement of general ideas rather than of detailed proposals, but it did nevertheless present a complete picture to show how the ideas could be carried out. Once the four rings are recognized it can be seen that the most important step is to reduce congestion in the inner urban ring by moving out from it the homes and work of a proportion of the people. Not many should be moved into the suburban ring, because the density there is already considerable: nor should any be moved into the Green Belt ring, because that is to be preserved from development. Householders should be encouraged to move right outside the Green Belt ring into towns in the outer country ring, which should be planned carefully according to the best principles.

This principle is called “decentralization” and is the reason for the development of new towns at, for instance, Stevenage and Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire. Middlesex houses more than 2¼ million of approximately 81 million people within the Metropolitan Police District. The problems of Middlesex are therefore generally those of Greater London, though the rapid rise of population and the intensification of industry between the wars have been even more marked than in the remainder of Greater London. Therefore if the people of Middlesex are to live in good conditions, with open land nearby for growing food and for recreation, the number of people and the amount of industry must accord with the limited amount of land available. It is considered that Middlesex can only cater comfortably for 2 million people.

The “Four Rings” For Greater London

THE PART TO BE PLAYED BY MIDDLESEX

Amongst the areas in Greater London requiring a measure of decentralization are some in Middlesex, such as Acton, Tottenham and Willesden, but the greater acreage of the County lies in the suburban and Green Belt rings, so Middlesex has several parts to play in the general plan: it should assist the outward flow from the overcrowded areas, regulate further growth in the suburban areas and carefully avoid encroachment upon the Green Belt ring. That is the three-fold policy upon which any plan for the County should be based. With the relief of congestion in the overcrowded areas their replanning will be made easier: with a fixed limit to the growth of new building areas it should be possible to plan them well in advance and, with the object firmly in mind of preserving the Green Belt as Greater London’s “countryside “, it should be possible to ensure that past threats of Middlesex eventually becoming an unending tract of bricks and mortar can be finally averted.

The Development Plan

The 1947 Act applied the planning process to the whole of the country. It required each local Planning Authority —in Middlesex, the County Council—to prepare a development plan. The County Council accordingly arranged for a survey to be made of all relevant conditions, such as the use of land, population statistics and trends, communications, industry, age and condition ofproperty, journeys to work and so on. This survey, which threw into focus all the chief problems of Middlesex, was then studied and its lessons analysed. The report of the survey forms the encyclopdia of existing conditions which are, so to speak, the raw material which the development plan must gradually mould into shape. This will take time. Faults cannot be corrected quickly or easily, for much of the property is modern and in good condition, and therefore has a long useful life which it would be uneconomic to terminate in favour of idealistic proposals. The plan accordingly aims at being progressive, but realistic. It does not call for outstanding immediate changes, but is a framework within which all future development will be guided. In order to keep pace with possible changes in circumstances, the plan will be reviewed every five years.

There are nevertheless some areas of the County where buildings have outlived their useful life and where there is over crowding, where industry and housing are inextricably mixed, where bomb damage has not been made good or where conditions are otherwise unsatisfactory. In these areas steps are being taken both by the County Council and the local authorities to plan for almost complete rebuilding, in order to remedy existing conditions and to provide better environment and working conditions for the people who live there.

In order to ensure that the development plan is complied with, permission must be sought and obtained before any building work is commenced. Development plans are only made effective by giving patient attention to countless building proposals. Planning applications are made to borough or urban district councils, which make decisions in about 8o per cent. of the cases, and they cooperate with the County Council, which, as Planning Authority, deals with applications involving matters of County importance—about 20 per cent. of the total. Thus development control, by a well-considered decision on each individual project, builds up the future County designed by the plan.

It can be seen that public interest and support are more essential in this work than in many other local government functions. Town and country planning is certainly a technical matter, but the object of the specialists is to secure for the public the best and most convenient living and working conditions which good planning can achieve.