History of Town Planning in England Featured Map Abercrombie
Map of London circa 1943 - History of Town Planning in England


Town planning can be 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 England, it is usually with reference to the system of ‘Town and Country Planning’, which has been in place since circa 1947. 

TownPlanning.Info provides information and help on all of these forms of ‘planning’, with a particular focus on the English system of ‘Town and Country Planning’. 


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.  Ancient and modern civilisations have adopted various forms of town planning to organise their settlements and use of land. 

England underwent huge organisational change in the 18th century due to industrial and agricultural revolution.  A characteristic of these revolutions was growth of cities and conurbations as populations moved from the countryside to seek better wages and jobs with the promise of escaping rural poverty – a trend that has been reflected in many developed countries.   

A consequence of the industrial revolution was the creation of poor quality, quickly built, cramped and unplanned towns and cities, resulting in terrible consequences for the health and wellbeing of the resident populations as well as extensive environmental pollution. 

Unplanned suburbs were expanding at an alarming rate in England’s largest cities. This began to focus the minds of those in power.  Towards the end of the 1800’s, Victorians began to adopt Planning as a means of improving the health of the general population. 

Philanthropists of industry began building decent housing for their workers, and infrastructure such as schools, realising the benefits this would bring to their businesses through increased productivity.      

The Garden City Movement, whose most acknowledged leader was, Ebenezer Howard, developed new principles of town layout and architectural design that created spacious, tree-lined avenues of houses for working people, embodying the best features of both town and country.

Letchworth Garden City in Hertfordshire was the first Garden City, which began construction in 1903 and by 1914 had 9,000 residents.  It was followed by numerous Garden Cities such as Welwyn Garden City and Garden Suburbs such as at Hampstead, which was subject to a 1906 Act, which included provisions that there should be not less than 50 feet between houses on opposite sides of the street and with densities of no more than eight homes per acre. 

The first reference to ‘town planning’ in UK legislation came in the form of the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act, which banned ‘back-to-back’ housing and brought in a raft of new legal standards. 


There was huge demand for new housing in England after the end of the first world war.  In 1919, the government passed an ambitious Housing Act which promised subsidies to help finance the construction of 500,000 houses within three years. However, due to the economic crisis of the 1920’s funding was cut, and only 213,000 homes were completed under the Act’s provisions.

The Housing Act of 1924 gave substantial grants to local authorities to provide new housing.  A subsequent Housing Act in 1930 obliged local councils to clear all remaining slum housing and provided further subsidies to re-house residents. The 1930 Act led to the clearance of more slums than at any time previously, and the building of 700,000 new homes.

Under the provisions of the various inter-war Housing Acts, local authorities constructed around 1.1 million homes.

In an attempt to put control on urban sprawl and the growth of the suburbs, the Town and Country Planning Act 1932 was the first such legislation to attempt countrywide rural planning, but this had limit powers on the control of development and landowners were effectively allowed to continue building where they wanted. 


Towards the end of World War Two, one of the main areas of national regeneration involved the reconstruction of Britain’s towns and communities.  A series of New Towns were imagined.  A Ministry of Town and Country Planning was established in 1943.

The New Towns Act 1946 established an ambitious programme for building new towns. It gave the government power to designate areas of land for new town development under the remit of a series of ‘development corporations’ which were set up for each of the new towns, most of which were intended to accommodate overspill of population from London and other large conurbations.  

Stevenage, in Hertfordshire was the first new town created under the Act, with ten others created by 1955.


The town and country planning system in England as we know it today first came about in legislation in the form of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 laid down procedures to control urban sprawl into the countryside and implement a ‘plan-led’ system for the first time.

The Act was revolutionary, transferring power from landowners and nationalising the right to develop land, imposing a requirement to secure planning permission for development for the first time.  The Act formed the basis for much of the modern planning system and its provisions have been copied in many other countries around the world since. 

The Act re-organised local government, reducing the number of authorities to 145 from 1,441.  Each had to create a development plan for their area against which planning applications would be assessed.  Permitted development rights were introduced for the first time and the new authorities were given wide ranging new powers covering the control of land use that included approval of planning proposals, redevelopment of land, compulsory purchase orders to buy land and lease to new developers, powers to control outdoor advertising, powers to preserve woodland or buildings of architectural/historic interest which led to the creation of Listed Buildings. The 1947 Act also made provisions for the compensation of landowners. 

Following the 1947 Act, The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was published in 1949 and was followed by the Town Development Act 1952.  Although modified in many ways since, between these various pieces of legislation, the foundations of the modern town and country planning system in England was created.



A Circular from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government in August 1955 instructed local authorities to create Green Belts around large towns and conurbations.  Green Belts have been one of the most enduringly successful and popular elements of the UK planning system, acting as a restraint on urban sprawl and keeping the identity of existing settlements intact. 

The Town and Country Planning Act 1968 introduced County structure plans to co-ordinate and guide local plans prepared by local authorities.  The Act also strengthened significantly measures to protect Listed buildings. 

Local authorities were re-organised in 1974 as a result of the Local Government Act 1972.  Whilst this was not a planning act as such, it had significant effect as it created a two-tier metropolitan and non-metropolitan county and district council structure which remains in use today in large parts of England.  Metropolitan county councils were subsequently abolished in 1986, and both county and district councils have been replaced with unitary authorities in many areas since the 1990s.   

In 1988 regional planning guidance was introduced to act as a strategic guide for county structure plans.



The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 superseded the 1947 Act, providing a new base for the planning system.  It made several changes, the most significant of which was dividing planning into forward planning and development control. 

This principle was further strengthened by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, which gave teeth to the plan-led system we have today by putting into statute that planning applications must be determined in accordance with the development plan, unless material considerations indicated otherwise. 

The 1990 Act included ‘Section 106’, which provides a mechanism still used today to facilitate legal agreements between local authorities, landowners and developers for the provision of developer obligations or planning gain to enable planning permission to be granted. 

Section 106 agreements facilitate developers being able to contribute towards the costs of infrastructure which may be away from or unable to be delivered directly by the development proposed (e.g. social, community and other infrastructure such as public open space, community centres, schools, roads, affordable housing etc).


The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 got rid of county-level structure plans and for the first time introduced statutory regional planning in the form of Regional Spatial Strategies.

The act, whilst retaining the ‘plan-led’ system introduced Local Development Frameworks in place of Local Plans.  The new frameworks, ‘LDFs’ brought in a suite of documents instead of a single plan and had to accord with the regional spatial strategy, ‘RSS’. 


The Planning Act 2008 made several changes that included Development plan documents ‘DPDs’ replacing LDFs.  The Act also allowed local planning authorities to make small changes to planning permissions using a simpler process than the full planning application.


In 2010 a new coalition Government was elected, with ‘localism’ as one of their main priorities. The Localism Act 2011 abolished regional planning, replacing it with a Duty to Cooperate and introduced neighbourhood planning. 

The Government published the National Planning Policy Framework in 2012. The NPPF replaced all previous national planning policy contained in Planning Policy Statements and Planning Policy Guidance notes with a single, streamlined document.  The NPPF remains in place today, albeit amended and supported by National Practice Policy Guidance (NPPG), which was brought in in 2014. 

The Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 brought in an option for developers to submit planning applications for major development directly to the Planning Inspectorate where the local planning authority has a poor record of performance.

Changes to permitted development rights enabled homeowners to extend their dwellings by up to 8 metres. 


The Levelling Up  and Regeneration Act became law in England on 26 October 2023.  A key manifesto pledge of the Conservative government elected in 2019, the Act (in the government’s own words) aims to: 

“support the government’s commitment to reducing geographical disparities between different parts of the UK by spreading opportunity more equally. The Act will also require the government to report annually on its progress, support the devolution of powers in England and create a framework for the delivery of green homes.”

At the time of writing, many of the provisions in LURA2023 relevant to the planning system have not come into effect. The Act provides a legislative framework within which those changes can be brought into practice. Many of the provisions will require significant further consultation and, in most cases, secondary legislation and will be some way off.

Key changes that are likely to impact the planning system when they are implemented include:

  • Wide ranging provisions that would facilitate the digitisation of planning and speeding up of the preparation of local plans. Changes to the local plan process have the potential to significantly affect the way that development is managed through the plan-led system in England.
  • The introduction of National Development Management Policies could represent a significant shift in the current system. Such policies are currently prepared locally in each local development plan, leading to duplication of time and cost in preparation, but reflecting local circumstances and council objectives. Under the new system, development management policies will instead be prepared by central government and automatically be imported into all local plans in England and would take priority over any conflicting local plan policies in those plans.
  • The abolition of the ‘duty-to-cooperate in the preparation of development plans.
  • A change to the period within which enforcement can be taken against those who have breached planning control to ten years for all types of enforcement.
  • A provision where the previous poor record of an applicant in not implementing permissions in its area or building them out unreasonably slowly could be used as a reason for refusal against granting further planning permissions for that applicant.
  • Processes to improve the current options for amending existing planning permissions through ‘s.73’ of the 1990 Act – which would allow permissions to be granted where they are not substantially different in effect to a previous permission on the site – but with consideration only being given to the proposed changes.
  • The introduction of a new Infrastructure Levy to replace the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL) and some Section 106 legal agreements.
  • The introduction of Environmental Outcomes Reports to replace the current EIA regime.
  • The introduction of Street Votes to facilitate permissions for popular types of development in a local area.
  • Community Land Auctions to allow landowners to grant options over land in their control to a local council, which would take effect if the land is allocated for development in a future development plan.
  • A new duty that requires local planning authorities to have “special regard to the desirability of preserving or enhancing” specified heritage assets or their setting.
  • Not directly a change to planning but affecting areas where the problem currently exists and which restricts the delivery of new homes, the Act requires the upgrading of wastewater treatment facilities by water companies to remove nutrient pollution at source by 2030.
  • Changes to compulsory purchase compensation rules to allow land to be bought at existing use value for schemes delivering significant affordable housing.

Keep an eye on our Articles for updates as and when significant changes come into effect. 


The planning system in England is in a constant state of flux.  In 2024 this state of flux feels particularly uncertain. 

There a scores of consultations affecting the planning system which are either awaiting government response, ongoing or which we know are coming as a result of the enactment of the LURA in October 2023.  Updates to the NPPF published in December 2023 have also yet to work their way into the system and consequences of the changes are not yet clear.    

We also know that a General Election has to take place before January 2025.  It is inevitable that the planning system and policy (housing, the economy, the environment, protection of the Green Belt etc etc) will be key fighting issues for the parties seeking election or re-election.

This is therefore going to be a significant period of change and TownPlanning.info will provide a commentary, comment and insight on the upcoming changes. 

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

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