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What is town planning? This guide provides an outline of what town planning is and introduces what town planners do. Let’s start with a definition of town planning.  


Collins English Dictionary


Town planning is the planning and design of all the new buildings, roads, and parks in a place in order to make them attractive and convenient for the people who live there.



The dictionary definition of town planning above does not do the profession justice.  

Town planning in its widest sense describes how we as  humans try to ensure that anything we do in, on, over or under land is attractive, works and is sustainable.

Land is the key element here – and the aim is the achievement of ‘sustainability’ in what humans do.  

Town planning is described as ‘planning’, ‘urban planning’, ‘city planning’, ‘spatial planning’, ‘environmental planning’, ‘land use planning’.  Effectively any activity which affects the use or protection of land and the delivery of ‘development’.    

When people refer to ‘town planning’ in the UK, it is usually with reference to the system of ‘Town and Country Planning’, which has been in place since circa 1947 and which has a more comprehensive remit than the dictionary definition set out above.   

Different countries employ different methods and systems for the planning of their nations, the management of their resources and the way that their nations develop.  

The phrase ‘Town planning’ incorporates the planning of development or protection of all types of land, be it natural, rural, or agricultural, developed or undeveloped.  It also describes the planning of settlements ranging from single buildings, hamlets or villages, up to cities and urban conurbations – as well as towns.    

Ever since humans evolved from being hunter gatherers to become settled farmers, with new settlements located on rivers and close to shelter and food, ‘town planning’ has been evident.  

Over the years town planning has evolved to become ever increasingly complex.  It affects all of our lives, influencing where new development will go, where and how people live, work, play and travel.  

On the macro scale, ‘planning’ determines which areas of a country will be developed and which will be protected for nature or agriculture.  Infrastructure such as power stations, reservoirs, airports, railways are planned on a national basis.  

At the micro scale, town planning determines where local homes, shops, workplaces and restaurants can be located, as well as the supporting infrastructure such as schools, parks, hospitals and libraries.  In the UK, the planning system has control over every form of ‘development’ down to the siting of a fence, works to a tree, or the insertion of a window in a house! 

Planners work on a technical level with professionals from a range of disciplines, such as builders, architects, engineers and environmentalists.  Due to the huge effects that planning can have on communities, Planners must also work within a framework that is for the benefit of the wider public, ultimately led by politicians, but heavily influenced by powerful lobby groups such as industry groups and businesses, environmental groups and others.  

Town planners must ultimately try to do their best to balance the competing demands of all these groups.  On a local level, this can be balancing the requests of privileged landowners and developers, with the needs and concerns of the wider public.  This can be difficult to achieve within the rules of the policy framework that applies. 

When done well, planning can be a great driver for growth and regeneration, creating vibrant and vital places, but also has the role of being the last line of protection for the environment and wider public amenity.  



At its core, town planning is all about how we organise ourselves to ensure that what we build and anything we do in, on, over or under land is sustainable.   

Whilst we may have come a long way since the days of the hunter gatherer settlements, when planning was all about survival, in a way – it still is! 

Sustainable development: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs

UN General Assembly, resolution 42/187

In the UK, planning policy is set by the National Planning Policy Framework which advocates a presumption in favour of sustainable development in planning decisions.  

Land use planning is just one part of the wider picture in terms of the delivery of sustainable development, however.  In the UK, the government is committed to delivery of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a historic global agreement to eradicate extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice and leave no one behind.  

UN UK Sustainable Development Goals Town Planning
Sustainable Development

Further information can be found on the UK Gov and UNDP websites.  


The control of land use and development in England and Wales is ‘plan-led’

The planning system in England and Wales seeks to balance the often conflicting interests of those proposing development and those of the public.

National government sets overarching legislation, policy and guidance to be followed at the national, regional, local and neighbourhood levels. 

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out the policies for England. It was introduced in March 2012 and updated in 2019 and 2021. More detailed guidance is set out in National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on specific issues such as design, climate change, flood risk and so on.

National policy for large infrastructure projects is set out in a series of National Policy Statements.  

‘Development plans’, which include ‘local plans’, are prepared by local authorities and these set out the broad policy framework for development that would be considered acceptable in each local area.  When prepared, Local Plans must take account of national planning policy and guidance.  Neighbourhood plans can also be adopted to provide area-specific policies. 

Those proposing development can make a planning application to the local authority who then determine whether proposals should be granted planning permission using the development plan as the starting point unless material planning considerations indicate otherwise. 

Town planning is sometimes reactionary when dealing with problems but is primarily a predictive and pro-active profession.  Town planners must accurately forecast future trends of the population as well as the markets and systems used by humans.  Planners must regularly review and adapt their policies accordingly.

The corresponding systems in Scotland and Northern Ireland are remarkably similar. However, they are legally separate and different in many aspects. This site (for the time being) focuses on providing information which is only directly relevant to England.

TownPlanning.info has an extensive catalogue of articles and guides which help explain the town planning system in England. 

See below for links to some of our most popular pages or use the search function and menus at the top of the page.