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25/07/2018

Lewis Silkin and the birth of the modern planning system

Drawing up a plan

1 July 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of the introduction of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Dougal Ainsley, from law firm Lewis Silkin, reflects on the impact of the act steered through Parliament by his firm's founder, the planning minister Lewis Silkin

1st July 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of legislation which represented a seismic shift in the way in which land in England can be used and developed – the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. This momentous Act came into force on the "appointed day" of 1st July 1948. It was proposed and steered though Parliament by the then minister of town and country planning, Lewis Silkin MP – and needless to say we are very proud of the central role played by the founding father of this firm in settling the framework of our planning regime, principles of which survive to this day. Town planning requirements were initially captured within the Housing Acts, as a natural adjunct to improvements to housing.

However, there was a recognition that a comprehensive planning and building response was needed to address the devastation caused by the Second World War - hence the previous (limited) town planning provisions in the Housing Acts were repealed, and the 1947 Act brought forward a brand new approach to the use and physical development of land. The essence of new regime was twofold:

  1. To introduce local development plans, prepared by local authorities and approved centrally, to give direction to future development (forward planning
  2. No development of land (building or change of use) unless authorised by planning permission. 

These two principles endure today, despite extensive change in context, and it's a credit to Lewis Silkin's vision that that is the case. It has not all been plain sailing, of course. Endless legislative amendment has been made to the Act in an effort to refine the detail. One particular and recent change in approach is that promoted by the current government in the Neighbourhood Planning Act 2017, whereby greater emphasis is given to "neighbourhoods" in the development planning system (which, it might be argued, results as much as anything from a political need to demonstrate the esteem in which the "neighbourhood" is held). In contrast, Lewis Silkin's approach, as he explained in the second reading Parliamentary debate on the proposed Act, was for development plans to be co-ordinated by those at county or county borough level, in that way undertaken by "a responsible authority, equipped with fully qualified staff, and possessing the necessary financial resources".

"Planning authorities cannot be expected to operate efficiently if they are under resourced, irrespective of the nuts and bolts of the law and policy which they must apply"

Lewis Silkin's comment here was aimed specifically at the production of development plans. However, what is striking is the way in which Lewis Silkin, in talking about the development plan production system, hit the nail very hard on the head when he spoke of the adequately resourced local authority. This is a fundamental point which applies across the entirety of the planning regime, from forward planning to consenting, enforcement to heritage management, and Lewis Silkin's comment is remarkably prescient, with far wider application than originally envisaged.

It is local planning authorities’ forever diminishing resources which leads to the planning system being slower and less proactive and reactive than it should be. The many changes to both the primary and secondary legislation, combined with inadequately considered public statements and tweaking of policy, has led to a system that is undoubtedly complex, but planning authorities cannot be expected to operate efficiently if they are under resourced, irrespective of the nuts and bolts of the law and policy which they must apply and within whose scope they must work.

"It seems that these basic principles, so eloquently put by Lewis Silkin in 1947, are needed as much today, if not more so"

Lewis Silkin introduced the Bill's second reading in 1947, saying that it would "begin a new era in the life of this country, an era in which human happiness, beauty and culture will play a greater part in its social and economic life than they have done before." It seems that these basic principles, so eloquently put by Lewis Silkin in 1947, are needed as much today, if not more so, in the face of the rapid and significant change in all quarters – economic, social, technical and environmental.

It is only right that Lewis Silkin's achievement in promoting and securing the enactment of the 1947 Act, upon which our current planning regime still rests, should be recognised and celebrated on this its 70th anniversary. We at the law firm which bears Lewis Silkin’s name are proud to continue the tradition of supporting clients through the often complex planning regime with (we hope) the clarity and pragmatism which our founding father so wished the system would express.

Dougal Ainsley is a senior associate at law firm Lewis Silkin

Main photo | Shutterstock

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