Rural Planning

In the past, most attention has been given to urban planning in Britain, reflecting the fact that 77 per cent of the population live in towns. However, 90 per cent of the land area of Britain is rural, and this must also be carefully planned, especially since the countryside is now changing rapidly under the influence of three main factors:

  1. Urban influences are increasing. The townsman’s desire to live and play in the countryside, in commuter villages second homes and recreation areas, is adding to an already heavy demand for food, water supplies and land for housing and industry. The urban impact is so strong in many regions that it is now very difficult to see town and country as separate entities.
  2. Economic and technological factors are changing the structure and methods of farming, with significant landscape consequences.
  3. Rural depopulation is having an increasing influence on settlement patterns and the provision of services, especially in remote rural areas.

In the face of these three factors, there is considerable pressure for economic, social and land-use changes, and a basic planning problem in Britain is whether the countryside should be protected or developed.

The first real attempt to formulate rural planning came during the Second World War with the reports of the Barlow Commission in 1940 on the distribution of population and industry, the Uthwatt Committee in 1942, which advocated machinery for land-use planning, and the Scott Committee in 1942, whose basic approach was to protect the countryside for agriculture. These three major reports had a considerable influence on post-war planning and the Scott Committee report in particular affected rural planning proposals in the Agriculture Act of 1947 and the Town and Country Planning Act of the same year. The emphasis in this legislation was to control development for the benefit of the farmer, although the interests of other users of the countryside were recognised in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949.

As a result, there has been a strong protectionist element in rural planning since 1947. This is necessary for many respects because to the farmer the countryside is a workplace which must be protected, but it also reflects a strong romantic preservationist attitude, based on the myth of an unchanged and unchanging countryside. However, the countryside is continuously changing, because of internal pressures such as depopulation and agricultural development, and because of external pressures from the town. As a result, there must be planning policies aimed at reconciling conflicting interests and producing positive, beneficial changes, rather than simply maintaining the status quo. This will not be easy, for while the countryside is a national heritage which must be conserved, it is also a vital economic unit and cannot be preserved as a rural museum. R.J. Green has written that the period since 1947 has been one of ‘wasted opportunity for positive rural planning’, but to accommodate the inevitable changes taking place in the countryside, there is now an increasing emphasis on policies concerned with both development and conservation, and a more integrated approach is being advocated. This integrated planning will be discussed after some aspects of life, work and leisure in the British countryside have been examined.

Settlements and Services

The settlement structures and provision of services in the country have developed under quite different conditions from those operating today, and to meet present needs, settlements and services must be rationalised, especially in remote rural areas.

Unfortunately, it is not easy to decide how settlements should be rationalised. An important policy in Britain has been the designation of key villages, which should be large enough and sufficiently well equipped to provide a range of services for their rural hinterlands. In these villages, the expansion would be encouraged, while withdrawal would be planned and aided from smaller, declining settlements. However, although policies identifying key villages have been followed successfully in counties such as Norfolk, Lincoln and Devon, little has been done to run down small settlements. There has been some limited closure of mining hamlets in Durham, but the political and social problems of implementing this policy are formidable.

There is also a need for the rationalisation of services, because as depopulation takes place the demand for services decreases, and the provision of shops, health and educational facilities piped water and drainage becomes uneconomic. On the other hand, such services are essential to the remaining population. This conflict between social desirability and economic viability is well seen in the problems created by the contraction of public transport facilities in rural areas since the mid-1950s. Rail and bus services have contracted because the declining population, increasing car ownership and changing social habits have led to a decrease in demand at a time when costs are rising, and most rural services are now no longer viable. Unfortunately, the loss of public transport hits vulnerable groups such as the poorly paid, the elderly and the young, who cannot afford cars. A crucial task facing the rural planner is to provide viable public transport to keep such groups mobile, whether it be through carpools, community minibuses, school buses or post buses. One solution would be to concentrate immobile people in key villages, but such direction would be politically unacceptable.

At a more local level, there is also the need for effective planning within villages. The general practice has been to infill vacant plots and allow small extensions in the form of a council or private housing estates, but such development has been criticised because it often destroys the character of the village. Many people feel that hammerhead culs-de-sac in low-density estates simply reflect the worst type of suburban development and are totally inappropriate in the country. It has been suggested that where the population is growing rapidly, it might be better to build new villages rather than spoil existing ones, and planning authorities at Bar Hill in Cambridge, Studlands Park in Suffolk and New Ash Green in Kent have allowed privately developed new villages to be established.

Agricultural Change and the Landscape

Since 1945, there has been considerable change in the structure and methods of farming, as economic necessity and technological developments have stressed the need for efficiency. The major trends in Britain have been the enlarging of farms because the shortage of agricultural labour has led to the need for much greater mechanisation and the modernisation of farm buildings. The impact of these trends has been so marked that it has been suggested that the landscape is changing as rapidly now as during the period of parliamentary enclosure in the eighteenth century. The major change has involved the removal of hedgerows, which, it is claimed, waste land, interfere with machinery and harbour vermin, and it has been estimated that the 800,000 km of hedgerow in England and Wales was disappearing at a rate of 8,000 km a year in the period 1946-1963, especially in the arable areas of eastern England. The feared ecological consequences of hedgerow removal are not yet apparent, but there is already concern about its effect on the landscape. Since ‘the satisfaction of the acsthetic and intellectual demands of society is one of the roles of landscape’ (Countryside Commission), ther is clearly a need to conserve it, but it must also be remembered that the agricultural landscape is essentially functional. There must therefore be planning to ensure that current changes provide landscapes as interesting as the ones that are replaced, because many people feel that while huge featureless fields and stark functional buildings are efficient, they are inappropriate in an English landscape that must be carefully conserved.

Visitors in the Countryside

One of the major changes in recent years has been the increasing number of townspeople in the countryside, many as residents, either permanent in commuter villages, or on a short-term regular basis in second homes. On a much larger scale are the increasing numbers of people visiting the countryside for recreational purposes on an irregular short-term basis, particularly at weekends and public holidays. On one hand, they bring considerable benefits, especially by providing employment, but on the other, they create heavy pressure at popular centres, particularly where there is easy access by car. There must be planning to cater for these recreational demands, and there is currently a range of designated areas where visitors can go. In fact, 9 per cent of England and Wales is covered by National Parks, and a further 6 per cent by Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, both established under the 1949 Act. More recent legislation in the Countryside Act of 1969 established country parks and picnic sites, the first long-distance route (the Pennine Way) was opened in 1965, and there are currently seven forest parks and over 120 nature reserves open to the public.

Unfortunately, the recreational use of the countryside is not yet well coordinated and many conflicts still have to be resolved. Even in the National Parks, recreation has to compete with agriculture, water supply and forestry, and in some parks with the military, mineral workings and even a nuclear power station. There is also a financial problem, because the local authorities who administer the parks find it difficult to raise mopey for car parks, picnic sites and information centres, and despite being called National Parks, there is no central control. As a result, in 1970-1, the 10 National Parks as a whole spent less thana quarter of what the Greater London Council alone spent on its parks and open spaces.

Recreational planning must be part of an integrated approach to land-use planning, and the establishment of the Countryside Commission under the 1968 Act was a step in the right direction, since its policy is to emphasise use and conservation rather than preservation. Integrated planning can be focused on particular resources or particular areas, and these two approaches are briefly examined.

Forestry and Integrated Planning

Not only have there been considerable changes in agriculture, but also in forestry, where the amount of woodland increased from 1.4 million ha in 1947 (6 per cent of the land area of Britain) to 2.1 million ha in 1977 (8.7 per cent). Despite this increase, native forests supply only 10 per cent of Britain’s timber needs, and it has been suggested that marginal agricultural land, especially in upland areas, should be afforested at a rate of 25,000 ha a year. This would have a considerable effect on the landscape, and the suggestion has not met with universal approval, but the development of forest resources is one area where different aspects of rural planning could be integrated to develop and conserve the countryside.

Forestry touches rural planning at a number of points which are often at issue, such as the provision of employment, industrial development, agriculture, water supply and amenity. Forestry gives direct employment and provides the raw material for associated industries such as pulp and paper. It can generate new roads and services and many declining settlements could be reinvigorated by an influx of forest workers who are needed at a ratio of about 1:40-50 ha of forest. It can be successfully integrated with agriculture since forests provide shelter for stock and grazing land, and evidence from Scotland and mid-Wales shows that agricultural productivity from sheep and cattle can be substantially increased. Forests are also valuable in water resource management because the trees slow the rate of run-off, and more recently it has been realised that they have tremendous recreational potential. If coniferous forests are planted with regard to visual considerations and ruler-straight lines are avoided, they can add much to the landscape and provide excellent cover for car parks and picnic sites. The Forestry Commission, which owns more than half of Britain’s forests, is increasingly allowing the use of forests for recreation. This is not new because the first forest park was opened at Loch Lomond in 1936, and there are now six others, but as demand has increased, more areas are being opened for camping, pony-trekking, hunting and other activities. In some areas, forests might even be considered primarily for their recreational rather than their economic value.

It is clear that forestry can be integrated with other forms of land use and Forestry Development Areas have been proposed, covering areas of at least 12,000 ha, where economic and social requirements can be met. However, even small forests can be used for purposes other than simply producing timber. The Quantocks Forest in Somerset covers only 900 ha but it provides timber, direct and indirect employment, wild life and water supply, and as an area of great natural beauty it attracts over 14,000 visitors a year.

The Regional Approach to Integrated Rural Planning

Because settlement, agriculture, forestry, industry, water resources and recreation do not exist as separate entities but are closely integrated, economic, social and land-use planning must take this into account . There is a clear noed for such multi-purpose planning at local, regional and national level to coordinate development and conservation. If agriculture is declining in an area, for example, the agricultural potential of the land can be assessed, farms reorganised on the best land, and the remaining land can be allocated to Industry, water storage, forestry or recreation. Settlement can be rationalised to suit new needs, and services can be provided for resident and visitor. Integrated planning has been undertaken in France, but there has been little progress in Britain. To some extent, the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which was established in 1965 and covers half of Scotland, has such a planning functicon, but other proposals, such as those in the 1967 Agriculture act for the establishment of rural development boards for Mid Wales and the Northern Pennies, have not been implemented.


Rural planning has two aspects: planning to conserve what is of value in the countryside, and the formulation of positive changes for the future benefit of those who live in, and those who visit, the countryside.

Further Reading

  • Cloke, P., Key Settlements in Rural Areas, Methuen, London, 1979.
  • Clout, HD, Rural Geography, Pergamon, Oxford, 1972.
  • Davidson, J. and Wibberley, G. Planning and the Rural Environment, Pergamon, Oxford, 1977.
  • Bell, C., and Bell, R., City Fathers: The Early History of Town Planning In Britain, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972.
  • Bracey, H.E., People in the Countryside, Routledge, London, 1970.
  • Buchanan, C ., Traffic in Towns, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1964.
  • Burke, G., Townscapes, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1976.
  • Cullingworth, J.B., Town and Country Planning in Britain (8th edn), Allen and Unwin, London, 1982.
  • Dobby, A., Conservation and Planning, Hutchinson, London, 1978.
  • Fairbrother, N., New Lives, New Landscapes, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1972.
  • Gibson, M., and Langstaff, M., Renewal of the Urban Environment, Hutchinson, London, 1980.
  • Gilg. A., Countryside Planning. The First Three Decades, 1945-1976, Methuen, London, 1979.
  • Green, R.J., Country Planning, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1971.
  • Hancock, J., Urban Development and Planning, Blackwell, Oxford, 1980.
  • Howard, E., Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The Failure of Urban Planning, Penguin Harmondsworth, 1965.
  • Keeble, L., Town Planning Made Plain, Longman, London, 1983.
  • Kirby, D.A., Slum Housing and Urban Renewal, Longman, London, 1978.
  • Merlin, P., New Towns . Regional Planning and Development, Methuen, London, 1971.
  • Osborne, F. J., and Whittick, A., The New Towns. The Answer to Megalopolis, Hill, London, 1963.
  • Patmore, J.A., Land and Leisure, David Charles Newton Abbot, 1970.
  • Ratcliff, J., An Introduction to Town and Country Planning, Hutchinson, London, 1974.
    Schaffer, F., The New Town Story, MacGibbon and Kee, London, 1970.
  • Tetlow, J., and Goss, A., Homes, Towns and Traffic, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Thomas, D., London’s Green Belt, Faber, London, 1965.
  • Westmacott , R., and Worthington, T., New Agricultural Landscapes, Countryside Commission, 1974.