Making Planning Popular

David Knight

First published in The Edge of Our Thinking, Royal College of Art, 2012

This is a paper about the creation of a nationalised planning system in mid-twentieth century Britain, the belief systems and ideologies that fed into its creation, and its subsequent character. It forms a part of an ongoing research project concerned with ‘Making Planning Popular’, a project which recognises that planning is mostly seen today as an abstract and distant bureaucracy, and which seeks to address this distance.

In principle, planning is the process through which society collectively produces change in our built environment. It is both a science and an art, and like these it has both a history and a culture. Different kinds of planning produce different kinds of space, and therefore what is at stake when we discuss planning is the sum shape of our collective built environment.

This might seem a peculiarly broad and ambitious definition of planning to anyone who has tried to prevent the construction of an airport runway at the end of their garden, preserve their favourite pub or add a new bedroom to their house. In such cases, planning can feel arcane, elitist, obscure and complex, something done for us by a distant state that seems either complicit in corporate machinations or helpless against them. And though many members of our society are prepared to become activists to defend environmentally significant places, views or buildings, this does not translate into an active, truly participatory planning practice; the techniques and processes of planning are typically seen as part of the problem rather than as collective tools, or at the very best something the public confronts rather than something they practice.

The intention of this paper is to provide some cultural context to the planning system as currently practiced, with a particular focus on its relation to popular culture and to everyday life. Our current system, which has survived various subtle transformations since its creation in 1948, is the product of an array of complex and contradictory ideologies, the nature of which must be understood if its current ‘unpopularity’ is to be addressed.

A House in Every Field

Planning as we know it was partly born out of the fear of an unchecked urban working class which resulted in the demonization of popular building activity.

E. M. Forster’s 1940 pageant play ‘England’s Pleasant Land’ connects a distinctly nostalgic narrative history of parliamentary enclosure with a looming proletarian takeover of the countryside in the form of plotlander communities: the urban working classes breaking out, even if only for a holiday in the sun, from the legacy of the 19th century city and reclaiming nearby coastal and rural areas. Such developments offered social and spatial freedom to urban dwellers for whom such things had until recently been a distant fantasy. Forster recognised that this uncontrolled re-occupation of the countryside would have serious consequences for the shape of the country, and he thus advocated for a set of rules to be nationally applied to keep such expansion in check.

By connecting the plotlander phenomenon to a much longer history of master/serf relations at the scale of landscape, Forster inevitably makes planning both a struggle for authority and an issue of class. His fears were echoed in the writings of Patrick Abercrombie, author of the County of London Plan and a key figure of British post-war planning. Abercrombie writes disapprovingly in 1943 of the ‘urban invasion of the country’ (1943:200):

It is optimistic to count upon the temporariness of many shacks, caravans-on-posts, old railway coaches, and static omnibuses… These objects, seedy on their first appearance… do not mellow with time, but have a knack of lingering on, patched and botched, into a decrepit and disreputable old age. (Abercrombie, 1943: 239)

In Abercrombie’s description it is clearly the urban working class doing the ‘invading’ rather than classless urbanites. Similarly, one contemporary commentator among many complained of how hut-dwellers both get the view and spoil it (Hardy & Ward, 2004: 6).

Such disapproval was part of a chorus of voices opposed to the working class reclamation of a countryside that had been in decline since the first waves of urbanisation.

The national planning system advocated by Abercrombie (and Forster) came into being in 1948 and was immediately used against plotlander-style developments. A very early instance of this was at what is now called Shoreham Beach in Sussex. The beach had for some decades been the site of Bungalow Town, a satellite ‘shanty’ adjacent to the harbour town across the river mouth, a ‘shanty’ occupied not only by urban escapees but also by a community of actors and entertainers, many of whom were attached to an early natural light film studio built on the beach in the 1910s. The homes of Bungalow Town were mostly built using redundant railway carriages with corrugated metal roofs slung between them, but the settlement also included nautical fantasies of rigging and flags and a pastiche of a medieval castle, homes whose design ambition was limited only by their humble plot sizes. Much of this unique settlement was cleared during World War II as the authorities apparently feared it would fall prey to a German landing, but it was finally destroyed for good when the county council, in one of the UK’s first experiments with new powers enshrined in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, compulsory purchased the whole shingle spit, demolished everything but the little pebbledashed church at the centre and a couple of nearby bungalows, and swiftly laid out a Levittownesque suburban masterplan for the whole area, effectively extending the host town’s sprawl over what had been a marginal and extraordinary independent settlement (Hardy & Ward, 2004: 91-102).

Planning is currently in the news as a result of the UK government’s ambition to give the system its biggest shake-up since the 1947 act. The government’s intentions have led to opposition from such organisations as the Daily Telegraph, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the National Trust, whose ‘Planning for People’ campaign has gathered nearly 300,000 supporters. These campaigns share a faith in the system’s ability to protect holy cows of heritage and culture. Their protests focus on the same places of rural beauty that the plotlanders colonised in the early twentieth century. The Telegraph notably citied comedian Griff Rhys Jones’s fear that the government’s proposals will result in a ‘house in every field’. Such fears are uncannily similar to those expressed by Forster and Abercrombie: that a lack of centralised planning will result in a flood of popular building activity on England’s pleasant land. It is telling that we fear ‘a house’ in every field, rather than wholesale overwriting by property developers; the eccentric bungalows of Bungalow Town rather than the concrete roads and suburban densities of Shoreham Beach.

Consensus and Collective Change

The creation of Shoreham Beach out of the ruins of Bungalow Town offers an insightful picture of the newly-powerful planning system. The new planning sought predetermined, tidy places like Shoreham Beach which reflected a false consensus of how the country should be organised. Even Robert Goodman, one of state planning’s fiercest critics, admitted that this ‘welfare model’ achieved a great deal in its efforts to remake the country and provide new homes, infrastructure and public services (Goodman, 1972: 26). However, as Goodman points out, it also enacted a newly ordered built environment designed in relation to the unverified preferences of a white collar bureaucratic elite. This was possible in the context of a mid- and post-war spirit of collective action in which Ralph Tubbs (1942: 25) could literally make a ‘call to arms’ for nationalised planning illustrated by photographs of tank and bomber production lines.

Over time, rather than suffering the revolutions and style wars that characterise the history of late twentieth century architecture, the initially radical planning system quietly evolved to incorporate change and critique, and in 1972 could be described as ‘one of the mainstays of policy for both left and right in British politics… supported by every post-war government.’ (Goodman, 1972: 40) Indeed, planning has not changed dramatically since 1948 because it was designed to accommodate, or absorb, change:

After 50 years, [planning] has become institutionally embedded within so many legal and institutional systems… that it commands support not because it promotes collective change, but precisely because it does not (Allmendinger, 2001: 4).

Housing finance and property values are crucial parts of these systems.

Criticism of the post-war system’s more simplistic or deterministic tendencies consequently led to adjustments rather than revolutions. Arguments in the 1960s that what we could call the ‘Abercrombie’ or ‘Blueprint’ era of planning (Hall & Tewdwr-Jones, 2011: 264) was based on a static, overly simplistic model led to the discipline seeking legitimacy in systems theory and cybernetics, finding renewed complexity but an equally slight engagement with popular desire, resistance and idiosyncrasy (Allmendinger, 2001: 94; Dear, 2000: 108-9; Hall and Tewdwr-Jones, 2011:264). Such models were found particularly wanting in the wake of the many pioneering works of urban and suburban sociology undertaken at the time, and this led to the grafting-on of such techniques as advocacy planning, community engagement and participation, none of which threatened the fundamental tenets of the model.

Even the Thatcher years with their much-vaunted ‘attacks on planning’, including the creation of Enterprise Zones such as that in the London Docks, did not really alter the fundamental working model which planning continues to follow. Instead, as argued by Brindley, Rydin and Stoker (1996), planning practice fractured into several concurrent working practices (including a practice called ‘popular planning’, notably in London’s Royal Docks and Coin Street) which each plugged in, with varying degrees of smoothness, to the broader overarching system. Planning’s intricate connections to other systems have increased in recent years, making fundamental revision, even if it is assumed desirable, less and less possible with the passing years. This broader narrative gives the lie to the Cameron government’s localist rhetoric of planning reform, and to the idea that the current proposed changes are about popular good rather than private good – big business is more than ready to oust the big society.

The value of our home, the competitiveness of our business, and the view from our kitchen window are all intimately connected to the way our society plans. The model that we currently operate, however, seems so out of reach as to make this connection almost entirely abstract. Perhaps it is a further legacy of the modernist thought that fed into planning’s early days that public engagement with planning is limited, for the vast majority, to a binary opposition: we think of planning only when we want to build or when we wish to oppose somebody else’s building. As a society we are unable to conceive of a popular, positivist planning, planning departments drown in letters opposing a given development whilst letters in support are an endangered, possibly fictional species. We acknowledge that new homes must be built, but operate a system wherein we can only oppose them going here, not consider where they might go. In a finite system, this is a tragic condition and a key blockage to any form of spatial justice.

We Must Plan Now

Thomas Sharp, first professor of planning at Newcastle University, published a best-selling popular book on town planning in 1940 which advocated for a new ‘organic, vital, clear, and logical’ planning order (Sharp, 1940). Such a bestseller would be unthinkable now (Sharp’s book sold an estimated 250,000 copies) and it is interesting to consider how a clear wave of public interest in the idea of planning fed into an emergent planning profession that found it difficult if not impossible to relate to popular desire. As an example of this, Wilfred Burns, subsequently Chief Planner at the Department of the Environment, wrote in 1963:

The dwellers in a slum area are almost a separate race of people… one result of slum clearance is that a considerable movement of people takes place over long distances, with devastating consequences… But, one might argue, this is a good thing when we are dealing with people who have no initiative or civic pride (Goodman, 1972: 27).

But in the 1940s the ‘rightness’ of consensus-based planning appears not to have been widely doubted. C. B. Purdom illustrated his book ‘How Should We Rebuild London?’ with an image of the returning soldier rolling up his sleeves, standing at the city map, and taking an erasing cloth to the historic fabric of the city (Purdom, 1945). Immense faith was placed in this apolitical, bureaucratic but practical man, and Purdom’s image clearly equates the ‘obvious good’ of fighting a wartime enemy with the subsequent ‘obvious good’ of changing the face of Britain.

The idea of the apolitical planner has always been illusory: any planning decision of importance is wedded to party politics and the need to win political favour. And today, the public image of the planner has shifted imperceptibly from the apolitical ‘doer’ of Purdom to a depoliticised middleman, operating somehow between the will of local councillors and the will of developers, abstracted from broader political questions and from the views of a disinterested public.

‘We Must Plan Now’ was the call to arms that Ralph Tubbs made in his exhibition and book ‘Living in Cities’ (1942). This was the beginning of a peak in planning’s popularity that fed directly into the shape and character of the first nationalised planning model. The subject was then a significant presence in public life, but as we have seen, the idea that the production of the built environment could be literally a popular activity was lost in the wave of post-war rebuilding and legislation. ‘We Must Plan Now’ was then a call for nationalised planning. Today, it could also be a call for a greater collectivity in that same planning practice and a recognition of the value of the popular. We must plan now.


– Abercrombie, Patrick (1943) Town and Country Planning (Second Edition). Oxford: OUP.
– Brindley, Tim, Yvonne Rydin and Gerry Stoker (1996) Remaking planning: The politics of urban change (Second Edition). London: Routledge
– Dear, Michael J. (2000) The Postmodern Urban Condition. Oxford: Blackwell.
– Fiske, John (1989) Understanding Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
– Goodman, Robert (1972) After the Planners (British edition). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
– Hall and Tewdwr-Jones (2011) Urban and Regional Planning (Fifth Edition). Oxon: Routledge.
– Hardy, Dennis and Colin Ward (1984) Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. London: Mansell.
– Higgott, Andrew (2007) Mediating Modernism: Architectural cultures in Britain. London: Routledge.
– Purdom, C. B. (1945) How Should We Rebuild London? London: J. M. Dent.
– Sharp, Thomas (1940) Town Planning. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
– Tubbs, Ralph (1942) Living in Cities. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
– Wainwright, Hilary (2003) Reclaim the state: experiments in popular democracy. London; New York: Verso.
– Wolters, N.E.B. (1985) Bungalow Town: Theatre & Film Colony. Shoreham: Marlipins Museum.


This paper has presented themes which can be detected in the planning system as it is currently practised and which can be traced back to the origins of the system in the 1940s. This is a system which has achieved (and prevented) a good deal, but it is nonetheless merely one system by which the built environment could be produced, and one that in contemporary society is dislocated from popular activity and popular knowledge. It can only be improved by increasing such popular knowledge, in the belief that this knowledge is the tool through which our vital but unwieldy system can finally become democratised. Planning must, in both senses of the word, be made popular – something that people understand, like, and do: a cultural practice not of an expert minority but of a popular majority in which experts play a crucial role.

Particular thanks are due to Ruth Beale who introduced me to ‘England’s Pleasant Land’ and made me think about it at length for a mini-lecture I gave as part of her residency at Wysing Arts Centre in 2011. Thanks also to Roberto Bottazzi at the RCA, David Lawrence at Kingston University, and Geoff Vigar at Newcastle University.

DK-CM_Essay_Making Planning Popular_RCA_2012