History of the Evolution of Planning in England

Planning in theory and practice

The British planning system evolved as a result of various social, economic and political events that took place in the last two centuries. Initially, town planners had the sole responsibility for making decisions about the development and redevelopment of towns and cities. It was only after the post-war period that the importance and relevance of public participation was realized and taken into consideration. This apportion of decision-making power to the public brought about a change in the role of planners in society, from being sole controllers to advocates. Planning theories were developed with a view to provide a firm base for the planning practitioners. The relationship between planning theory and planning practice has always been under constant deliberation and is still evolving.

In earlier days, planners worked in a professional and politically controlled system. The discussions and plans were presented in a professional way which consisted of technical jargon that the public could not be expected to understand (Glass, 1959 cited in Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006). At the time, however, planners were perceived as acting in the general public interest, and hence the lack of public participation and political debate was not recognized as a problem.

During the post-war period, the need for urban and rural development became a necessity. Housing estates were being constructed with few amenities and urban centres rebuilt along with motorways to take in increasing traffic. Development in the villages was neglected and they suffered from a lack of proper infrastructure (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006). This led to the destruction of social and physical fabric of the place and put planners in a difficult situation. Planners were seen as hostile figures and planning was conceived as bad (Allmendinger, 2009). Public participation was then introduced by Town and Country Planning Act in 1968 (Williams, 1984). Planning authorities created informal mechanisms which encouraged participation of local communities and interest groups to play a part in formulating and implementing planning policy.

Another concern was with regard to new type of “social planning” which was conceived as being helpful in compensating for problems such as access to goods, services, opportunities and power. This inability to address social and economic problems effectively brought about a need for advocacy planning. It was seen as a solution which would help experts work directly with disadvantaged groups (Goodman, 1972 cited in Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006). Davidoff opined that planners should act as advocates on behalf of both the government and the people (Allmendinger, 2009). Changes were incorporated with regards to consultation and public participation in the statutory planning procedures making it an important feature of the planning process (Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006).

The Skeffington Committee report in 1969 on “People and planning” defined a positive attitude towards public participation in planning. The report recommended keeping people informed throughout the preparation of plans so that their suggestions and views could be considered. The implications of the distribution of power in the political process were not discussed. The Seebohm Committee (1968) highlighted the implications that public participation would have on local politics. Broady in 1968 and Barlow in 1995 viewed public participation as a restricted activity. Cullingworth and Nadin (2006) assessed that the public only participated with the system when they were individually affected. The 1980s and 1990s saw an increase in public participation (Edmundson, 1993 cited in Cullingworth and Nadin, 2006).

Planning theory developed over a period of two centuries (Friedman, 1987:54 cited in Allmendinger, et al., 2005). Collaborative planning emerged in the 1990s. Healey (1997) presented issues regarding contemporary concerns such as beliefs of community, power, impact on the structure of global economics, regional impact, environmentalism, systems of governance, control and nature of expertise, intermediation and spatial planning in the model of collaborative planning (Allmendinger, et al., 2005). It has been described as a form of practice in conjunction with other forms of planning derived from various wider sociological and economic theories. Neil Harris (2005) argued that the concept of collaborative planning had limited application in wilder contexts and is not of explanatory character whereas Allmendinger (1999) contested that collaborative planning presented a world view, and has been referred to as a theory of practice (Tewdwr-Jones and Allmendinger, 1998:1987 cited in Allmendinger, et al., 2005).

Hague (1991) criticised planning theory on the grounds of limited reference to issues of ‘place’. He argued that planning theories do not tend to develop concepts that include historical, cultural or constitutional references. The nature of a particular place, providing the context for the application of theoretical framework is not considered. Planning theory has always been discussed with respect to analysis of decision-making and public administration which has caused a concern regarding space and place which have been neglected instead of having been considered as central issues (Allmendinger, et al., 2005).

Sanyal (2002) argued that planners did not find any of the planning theories useful based on the survey of planning practitioners. The practitioners insisted that they learnt planning by doing it practically and not from theoretical concepts (Friedmann, 2003). As a response to the arguments set by Sanyal, Friedmann (2003) explained that different theories served different purposes in the planning context. He categorised planning theories into three categories. The first category refers to theories that could be used in relation to specialist subjects such as land use, transport, urban design, regional planning, environmental planning, etc. He called the second category theories as theories of planning that highlight the commonalities to be considered by the planners and he called the third category as theories about planning. Friedmann (2003) argued that planning practice could not exist without planning theory. Planning theory acted as a base for the planning practitioners to present solutions to the practical problems in planning. He further explained this by giving an example of the arguments of Herbert Simon and Charles Lindblom about synoptic and incremental planning which influenced the planning professionals into believing that planning was all about making rational decisions. He concluded that planning theory is important to keep the vitality and relevance of the profession alive.

What is clear is that planning theory changes over time, and even at any particular time it is likely that there will be a number of different, at times, competing visions of what planning should do. Theorists try to help by making sense of a number of approaches that could be available for practitioners to use. One of the areas theorists look at is the input of communities into planning policy and decision making. Some of the questions that remain unanswered with respect to involving communities in planning are: how to reach everyone who needs to be reached? How much weight do we give to those who scream the loudest against the potential silent majority? How do you engage communities to discuss something as remote from their day to day lives as a 20-year strategic plan for the city?


Allmendinger, P. (2009) Planning theory, 2nd ed. ed., Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan.

Allmendinger, P., Campbell, H., Flyvbjerg, B., Harris, N., Harrison, P., Hillier, J., Huxley, M., Marshall, R., Oranje, M., Penington, M., Richardson, T. and Tewdwr-Jones, M. (2005) Planning Futures: New Directions for Planning Theory, London and New York:Routledge
Taylor & Francis Group.

Cullingworth, J. B. and Nadin, V. (2006) Town and country planning in the UK, 14th ed ed., Abingdon:Routledge. pp. 431-460

Friedmann, J. (2003) ‘Why Do Planning Theory?’. Planning theory. 2(1), pp. 7-10

Gilg, A. W. (2005) Planning in Britain: understanding and evaluating the post-war system, London:SAGE.

Williams, R. H. (1984) Planning in Europe: urban and regional planning in the EEC, London:Allen & Unwin. pp. 86-100

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