Ian Abley John Burns - Author of the 1909 Planning Act
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1. John Healey, Speech: Town and Country Planning Association Annual Conference, 1 December 2009, 1 Whitehall Place, London, TCPA Annual Conference 2009: social justice, climate change and planning, posted on

2. Peter Hetherington, Full steam ahead, Guardian, Society, 9 May 2007, posted on

3. Peter Hall, Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century, Chichester, Wiley Blackwell, 2002, p 20 Third Edition, first published 1988

4. Stephen Merrett, State Housing in Britain, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979, p 308

5. Ibid, p 308 and 309

6. John Burns, Housing, Town Planning, etc., Bill, HC Deb 05 April 1909 vol 3 cc733-98, Hansard

7. Joseph Clayton, The Rise of the Democracy, London and New York, Cassell and Company, 1911, posted on

8. Anthony S. Wohl, The Eternal Slum: Housing and Social Policy in Victorian London, Piscataway, New Jersey, Transaction Publishers, 2001, p 278

9. 'John Burns Raids Houses in Slums: British Cabinet Officer Cleans Up 129,620 Dwellings Unfit for Habitation', The New York Times, 1 February 1914

10. Raymond Unwin, Foreword in E.G. Bentley and S. Pointon Taylor, Housing, Town Planning, etc Act 1909: A Practical Guide in the Preparation of Town Planning Schemes, London, George Philip & Son, 1911, p v to vi

11. E.G. Bentley and S. Pointon Taylor, Housing, Town Planning, etc Act 1909: A Practical Guide in the Preparation of Town Planning Schemes, London, George Philip & Son, 1911, p 49 to 50

12. E.G. Bentley and S. Pointon Taylor, Housing, Town Planning, etc Act 1909: A Practical Guide in the Preparation of Town Planning Schemes, London, George Philip & Son, 1911, p 59

13. Flavel Shurtleff, 'The English Town Planning Act of 1909', Proceedings of the Second National Conference on City Planning and the Problems of Congestion, Rochester, New York, May 2-4, 1910. Boston, National Conference on City Planning, 1910, p 178 to 182

14. Flavel Shurtleff and Frederick Law Olmsted, Carrying out the city plan: the practical application of American law in the execution of city plans, New York, Survey Associates, 1914, p 1, posted on

15. Hugh Pearman, editorial, House and Home, November 2009, RIBA Journal, p 5

16. Barry Cullingworth and Vincent Nadin, Town and country planning in the UK, 13th Edition, London, Routledge, 2001, p 15

Where to build?100,000 homes a year is all that will be built in Britain unless we organise against the Town and Country planning systemThe regression of Green Capitalism

Deluded Housing Minister John Healey celebrates the 1909 Planning Act

With all the reshuffles earlier in the year it looked like the Town and Country Planning Association might not be able to get a government Minister to celebrate the centenary of the Planning Act of 1909. The TCPA like to flatter themselves. They managed to get Housing Minister John Healey to tell their membership what they wanted to hear:

'You are celebrating your 110th year. It is good to see that you are still at the cutting edge of thinking when it comes to delivering good planning. It is clear that the role of planners is just as central now as it was over a century ago.' (1)

Anyone unfamilar with planning would be forgiven for thinking that it was the TCPA who had brought the 1909 Act into being, and that nothing much had happened to planning policy in the intervening 100 years.

Healey either doesn't know about planning history, or has chosen to ignore ways in which the 1909 Act differs from national planning law today. The TCPA seem not to be bothered enough to correct him. Also Healey announced that the TCPA Chief Executive Gideon Amos will be joining the new Infrastructure Planning Commission as a Commissioner in March 2010. So don't expect any criticism of Healey from Amos as he sets about using the nationalised planning system in an effort to force through "big green projects". The early critics of the IPC thought it would be working against their environmental agendas. (2) Not so. With the likes of Commissioner Amos at the IPC the Conservatives will not feel any need to replace the planning quango should they win the election.

John Healey

John HealeyHealey faces little criticism from planning enthusiasts. The TCPA rather encouraged Healey to blather on about the future of planning in Britain. In his delusion of ministerial control Healey hoped for '... a national policy and planning system that will help secure the investment to transform Britain from a successful high carbon country to a world-leading low carbon society and economy.' (1) Healey has a vision of "eco-equality":

'Our planning system must be an egalitarian system, driven by an egalitarian vision - not the grand designs of a few, but greener, more affordable homes which help everyone do their bit for tackling climate change.' (1)

Today it is the environment that concerns politicians and their appointed planning officers. Once it was people. Healey can say:

'The need for more homes has not gone away and we are determined to deliver the housing that is needed in order to improve affordability - particularly for first-time buyers, reduce pressure on waiting lists and address over-crowding.' (1)

While he may believe that, he also wants "eco-equality". From 2009 expect planning to be more concerned with the environment. The socialist concern for equality without a pre-fix evident in 1909, and in 1947, are long gone. Of course concern over housing conditions for Britain's working population predates the 1909 Planning Act. It was not planners who first worried about the living conditions of the majority of people in Britain. There was a political contest outside Parliament.

In 1885 the Housing of the Working Classes Act was the consequence of a Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes. Even by Victorian standards the Royal Commission was a vast enterprise. It resulted in three short reports for England and Wales together, Scotland, and Ireland, which summarise the quantity of evidence presented in over 1,300 pages. They occupy eight command papers contained in two volumes of Parliamentary papers. However little remedy for the evident overcrowding was proposed. (3) The existing law was consolidated, the minimum rate of interest on public loans was reduced and payment periods extended, and a definition of "Lodging Houses" provided. (4)

The Housing of the Working Classes Act, 1890 was for Stephen Merrett, author of State Housing in Britain, '… the most important single item of legislation before World War I in its scope and in its use by local authorities for housebuilding.' (5) Councils could build "Lodging Houses" for single households. The legislation was amended in 1900 and 1903, by which time local authorities could borrow over an extended period of 80 years, but were still required to sell within 10 years. Consequently the Victorian Housing of the Working Classes Act, even when amended, would not allow local authorities to build a stock of housing for rent.

It was the awkwardly named Housing, Town Planning, etc Act 1909 that removed the need for local authorities to sell homes within 10 years of building. This made "council housing" possible. While inviting local authorities to become landlords on a long term basis, the 1909 Act was also firmly against the building of basement and back-to-back houses. John Burns made this clear reading the Bill for the second time in the House of Commons:

'We are taking steps to abolish underground and cellar dwellings altogether. Personal and public opinion in the last few years has moved rapidly, and the proposals of the Bill practically terminates underground and cellar dwellings for human habitation for the future. We are also seeking to obtain power to prohibit back-to-back dwellings. ["Oh."] I notice that one Member of the House says "Oh." That confirms the fact, perhaps, that representations as to back-to-back houses have only been received from one district, I do not believe that back-to-back houses ought to exist at all. So far as this Bill is concerned no back-to-back houses are to be allowed in future.' (6)

Denying landowners their freedom to cram tenants into basement and back-to-back housing was a cause for reformist socialists like Burns in Edwardian Britain. He had not made his name with the 1909 Act, which promoted the role of the Local Government Board, of which he was President from 1905 to 1914. His was a ministerial post established in 1871, and for Burns a Cabinet position.

His was a notable achievement. The son of an engineer, and born in 1858 in Lambeth, Burns joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1879. Employed by the United Africa Company, and horrified by the way Africans were treated, Burns committed to ending inequalities between races and classes. He returned to England in 1881 and formed the Battersea branch of the Social Democratic Federation. He stood but was not elected as the SDF candidate for Parliament at West Nottingham in 1885, and became convinced that trade unionism was going to be more effective than parliamentary democracy. In 1886 Burns was charged with seditious conspiracy after a riot by unemployed workers in the West End of London, and acquitted. In 1887 he was imprisoned for six weeks for arguing for the right of free speech.

John Burns

John Burns - Working Class Member of Parliament

In 1889 Burns helped lead the London dock strike, and was elected in Battersea to the London County Council. Recognised as a working class leader Burns joined the Liberal party and was elected to the House of Commons in 1892. (7) He distinguished himself by his opposition in Parliament to the Boer War in 1900.

With Fred Knee, then the secretary of the Workingmen's National Housing Council, Burns pushed for the building of Battersea's Latchmere Estate. (8) Opened in 1903 it was the first municipal housing estate built using a council's own direct labour force.

When the Liberals won the 1906 General Election the new Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman appointed John Burns the President of the Local Government Board. His fame spread to New York, where he was recognised for using his planning power to tackle slum housing. (9) Burns was the first minister of working-class origins in British government, and was promoted to be the President of the Board of Trade in February 1914. Opposed to Britain becoming involved in the First World War he resigned from government in August 1914.

In the Foreword to A Practical Guide in the Preparation of Town Planning Schemes, published in 1911, Raymond Unwin saw Burns as supporting the "movement" for town planning:

' "Town Planning" has a prosaic sound, but the words stand for a movement which has, perhaps, a more direct bearing on the life and happiness of great masses of the people than any other single movement of our time… The movement which has brought into being Mr. Burns' Town Planning Act, and which is seeking to find through that Act the means of realizing its aims, indicates a great development of the civic spirit; and if this continues to grow it is not too much to say that Town Planning will prove to be the first step in the creation of a new type of beautiful cities expressing what is best in modern life.' (10)

The 1909 Act enabled local authorities as a "responsible authority" to fund localised planning schemes through the "betterment" that landowners had gained by being involved:

'The Act also provides for the partial recoupment of the expenditure of the local authority in connexion with the scheme by giving them a claim to half the amount by which any property is increased in value by the making of the scheme… and as to the amount and manner of payment (whether by instalments or otherwise) of the sum which the responsible authority are entitled to recover, shall be determined by the arbitration of a single arbitrator appointed by the Board, unless the parties agree on some other method of determination.' (11)

We rather know "betterment" as "planning gain" today. The 1909 Act expected land owners to see mutual benefit in collaborating with local authorities in a planning scheme. Since the vast majority of landowners in Edwardian Britain were of at least of the same social class as the councillors elected to local authority positions the arrangement was implicitly one of negotiation. The negotiation over "planning gain" remains within the planning system. Then, however, it was not without risks for the local authority either, since provisions for "compensation" were the flipside to "betterment":

'The Act provides that any person whose property is injuriously affected by the making of a town-planning scheme shall, if he makes a claim for the purpose within the time (if any) limited by the scheme, be entitled to obtain compensation in respect thereof from the responsible authority… it should be noticed that it is not restricted to persons whose property is comprised within the area included in the scheme, but applies to any person whose property is injuriously affected by the making of the scheme.' (12)

The 1909 Act gave impetus to planning in America, and as in Britain the provisions for the determination of terms of "betterment" and "compensation" had immediately attracted the attention of lawyers.

Flavel Shurtleff was a Boston attorney who became one of the early specialists in the legal aspects of planning. He helped organize the National Conference on City Planning and served as secretary from 1910 to 1935. He was also a charter member of the American City Planning Institute and was its secretary from 1918 to 1934. In 1935 he became counsel to the American Planning and Civic Association, and Associate Professor of planning legislation and administration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940. In 1910 Shurtleff praised the British legislation, saying that:

'In conferring exclusive authority on and centralizing administrative powers in the local government board, the act carries out to an extreme unlikely under our system of government the principle that successful city planning is dependent on an administrative organization which shall have wide power and sole authority over all questions relating to the city's physical development.' (13)

In 1914 Shurtleff wrote Carrying out the city plan: the practical application of American law in the execution of city plans, collaborating with Frederick Law Olmsted. Shurtleff argued that private land owners could frustrate attempts at planning, and so '… at an early stage land or rights in land must be acquired for the public, and a municipality will be called upon to consider, first, whether it has a right to acquire or use land for a desired purpose; second, the methods of acquiring the land; and third, the equitable distribution of the cost of its acquisition.' (14)

Shurtleff was far ahead of British planning thinking, which struggled with the tension between the collection of "betterment" and the potential for "compensation" to be claimed by landowners. It proved critical in the development of British planning in the 1940s to distinguish between public land ownership and "rights in land". A great planning discussion took place in the 1940s, which Healey makes no mention of.

Professor Sir Peter Hall of the TCPA knows very well that the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act effectively '... nationalised the right to develop land', but not as Peter Hetherington in the Guardian imagined as '... a precursor to the wholesale nationalisation of land itself.' (2) The point of the 1947 innovation was to avoid the nationalisation of land. Hetherington only shows his ignorance, but Hall at the TCPA will probably let Healey get away with his elision of planning law in 1909, 1947, and 2009.

In 1947 the British government nationalised development rights, which meant that land owners were not free to build on the land they owned, effectively giving the British state complete development control. The 1947 Act was partly motivated by the perceived need to institute a national system that denied development rights to all, to overcome the localised character of the British planning legislation since 1909. It allowed for one last payment of "compensation", and sought to collect all of the landowner's "betterment" in winning planning approval. Predictably the negotiation over "betterment" was revived within a few years, so that land owners and a new class of developers could retain a share of the government awarded "planning gain", as had been the case in 1909.

That is, briefly, the origin of the post-1947 system we suffer from.

Contrary to Healey's deluded speech, the current planning system based on the 1947 legal innovation is not the continuation of the ineffective 1909 planning Act. It is all too effective as legislation. Now government denies development rights to everyone, reallocating planning approvals to those who fit some kind of changeable plan, and land owners have no legal alternative to the negotiation over "planning gain".

The national planning system covers all development schemes, now with an IPC administering "big green projects" over the heads of elected local authorities. National planning guidance now tells local authority planning committees and their officers to require higher than suburban housing densities in pursuit of sustainable development. Always happy to follow policy, architects with an interest in sustainability are today proposing eco-back-to-backs as "affordable" housing. The housing form that John Burns opposed is re-imagined as the future for subsidised housing, crammed into expensive brownfield sites. (15) These homes will get planning permission. Architects will happily delude themselves that they are designing a double-density world devoted to an age of "eco-equality".

If John Burns were alive he might give Healey a piece of his mind.

Burns is not. It is up to us to criticise the intellectually challenged Housing Minister of 2009 with his threat of "eco-equality".

Today land ownership is not the ruling class phenomenon it was in Edwardian Britain. Most of Britain's households in 2009 are owner occupiers. The vast majority want to be. The political and economic context is transformed from 1947, and the continuation of the denial of development rights has become the means by which house price inflation can easily become a financial bubble. It would be better for planning to recover the freedoms of 1909, and for planners to criticise the 1947 nationalisation. Then planning would again be a struggle to confront the sorts of land owners who want to build eco-back-to-backs today.

Healey did note that the aim of the 1909 Act was to create '... the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified, and the suburb salubrious.' (16) But he doesn't promote suburbs. Planning is very different today. Suburbs are widely considered to be unsustainable forms of development, and cramming is legally required.

Healey says '... we must have a planning system to support sustainable development which provides decent and affordable homes and communities for everyone. Eco-equality, if you like - at the heart of the planning system.' (1) This is delusory, but it goes unchallenged.

Today the land owners cramming households into eco-back-to-backs include the same government that denies people the freedom to build somewhere better to live. Healey asked '... I wonder what the Ministers back in 1909 would have thought?' (1) Burns would be appalled at the distortion of a socialist meaning of equality in Healey's speech.

'Today we have been celebrating the last 100 years of planning, and you will have had facsimile copies of a handbook to the 1909 Act. I hope that in 100 years time our children's children will distribute the 2008 Planning Act in whatever form technology then takes.' (1)

Truly deluded!

Ian Abley 10.12.2009

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