Planning in the Scottish Borders: Origins

This is the first in a series of posts, which will eventually form the basis of a book on the history of town and country planning in the Scottish Borders.  The origins of town and country planning in Britain lie in the dramatic changes in nineteenth-century society caused by the industrial revolution with an influx of people from the countryside into the towns.  Houses and factories were constructed cheek by jowl; there was no control over standards of construction and little or no regard for proper ventilation and sanitation.  Model villages, built by industrial philanthropists, such as New Lanark, the brainchild of David Dale and his son-in-law Robert Owen, showed how workers could be housed in healthy surroundings.  The Public Health (Scotland) Act 1897 gave local authorities powers to secure proper standards of drainage and sewage and regulate the width of streets, space between houses and size of rooms.  However, these powers did not deal with more general land-use problems, such as the proximity of housing and heavy industry.

Until the passing of The Housing, Town Planning, etc. Act, 1909, which applied to Scotland, local authorities did not possess any right or power to control or regulate the development of the towns and districts under their jurisdiction.  The 1909 Act was the first enactment in Great Britain to deal with the subject of town planning.  Under the 1909 Act, local authorities could make town planning schemes for defined areas which were in the course of development or which appeared likely to be used for building purposes.  The Housing, Town Planning, etc. (Scotland) Act, 1919 introduced compulsory town planning schemes for every burgh with a population of 20,000 or more.  However, the largest town in the Scottish Borders, Hawick, had a population of only 16,900 and so this Act had no effect here.  The Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1932 extended the scope for planning action by enabling all local authorities to make planning schemes for almost any land.  However, planning schemes were very inflexible and the prospect of having to pay heavy compensation to those who sustained financial loss in consequence of such a scheme deterred many authorities from making planning schemes.  No action was taken in the Scottish Borders under this Act.

In the 1930s, major land use problems began to emerge nationally; urban sprawl and ribbon development attracting most attention.  A series of Royal Commissions set up during the Second World War looked into specific problems relating to the control of development in anticipation of the need to rebuild the country after hostilities had ceased.  The Barlow Report (1940) recommended the decentralisation of population and industry.  It led to the establishment of new towns such as East Kilbride and Glenrothes in Scotland.  The Scott Report (1941) called for local planning to become compulsory and the approval of the local authority to be required for new development.  The Uthwatt Report (1942) recommended that all land should be brought within development control to prevent development prejudicial to post-war reconstruction plans.

The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1947 sought to give effect to the recommendations contained in the Barlow, Scott and Uthwatt reports.  These Acts were the foundations of the modern town and country planning system.  Under the 1947 Acts, planning permission was required for the development of land and local authorities were given wide ranging powers: as well as approving planning proposals, they must prepare development plans; they could also carry out redevelopment themselves and they could use compulsory purchase powers to buy land and make it available for development by developers.  They were also given powers to control outdoor advertisements, preserve woodland and buildings of architectural or historic interest.

In Scotland, Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), biologist, sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and pioneering town planner, advocated a regional approach to planning that took account of the complex relationships between people and their environment.  This approach bore fruit in 1943 when the wartime Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston, asked Sir Frank Mears, architect and planning consultant, Patrick Geddes’ son-in-law, to prepare a regional plan for central and south-east Scotland, which included the Scottish Borders.  His Regional Survey and Plan for Central and South-East Scotland was published in 1946.  It was one of three major regional plans for Scotland’s post-war reconstruction; the others were the Clyde Valley Regional Plan 1946 by Sir Patrick Abercrombie and Robert Matthew and the Tay Valley Plan 1950 by Robert Lyle and Gordon Payne.

Sir Frank Mears’ report recommends some far-reaching proposals for the future development of central and south-east Scotland, including a new Forth Road Crossing and by-pass for Edinburgh and a new town in Fife (Glenrothes).  The report provides a comprehensive assessment of the population, economy and land use of the Scottish Borders and sets out proposals for the future planning and economic development of the area.  At the time, there was a shortage of labour in the Tweed industry and the report warned that the progress of existing industries and any prospect of introducing new small-scale industries was handicapped by lack of housing.  The decline in population experienced since 1871, particularly the decline in the younger age groups, would accelerate unless housing was provided on a generous scale.  In order to co-ordinate future action, the report recommended the establishment of a joint committee of local authorities based in a new regional hub at St. Boswells/Newtown St. Boswells where offices, a new hospital, an agricultural college, student accommodation and housing would be developed.  Industrial development would be concentrated in the existing burghs but the Charlesfield munitions site outside St. Boswells could be developed as an assembly plant for the hundreds of pre-fabricated houses required after the war.  In Berwickshire, where rural depopulation was particularly severe, a development commission would be established to encourage rural industries; at Eyemouth, a new harbour would be constructed to provide improved facilities for the fishing industry.  The report also draws attention to the inadequacy of east-west road communications through the Tweed Basin (a recurring theme in subsequent development plans), and suggests a major new road link between Berwickshire and Lanarkshire utilising improved existing roads but also including by-passes for St. Boswells/Newtown St. Boswells, Melrose and Galashiels in the central borders and Walkerburn and Innerleithen in Peeblesshire..

The Mears report would pave the way for the preparation of the first county development plans by Berwickshire, Peeblesshire, Roxburghshire and Selkirkshire County Councils.  However, in many respects, the Mears Report was too radical, some might say too academic, in its approach to the future development of the region and did not take due account of the historic pattern of development and local politics.  Consequently, few of its recommendations would find their way into the new County Development Plans.  In the second post on the history of town and country planning in the Scottish Borders, we shall see how the local authorities envisaged the region developing in the subsequent years.

Author: douglas hope

Over fifty years experience in town and country planning, including twenty-one years with the Borders Regional Council (1975-1996) and twenty years with the Scottish Government as a Reporter for the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals.