Bath City Council took an active role in planning aspects of the city environment from at least the second half of the eighteenth century, when, together with the Bath Improvement Commissioners, the Council embarked on the redevelopment of city centre properties which it owned, and the creation and widening of city centre streets. However, both the powers and the ambitions of the Corporation were very limited at this date. This began to change in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the Council gained the first of the powers which ultimately enabled it to exercise a large degree of control over building standards and strategic planning and development within the city. The expansion of these powers was slow and intermittent at first but much more rapid from the second quarter of the twentieth century.
The first development control powers to be gained by the Council was the power to regulate the construction and sanitation of new buildings. The 1858 Public Health Act allowed local authorities to pass bye-laws regulating how houses were to be built, to ensure that they met minimum requirements for sanitation and quality of building. Bath City Council passed its first building regulation bye-laws under the Act in 1866 and 1868.
For the next hundred years, the two most important factors influencing the move to control building development were a concern for public health and the provision of adequate housing for the working classes. Later nineteenth-century public health acts strengthened the powers of local authorities over building standards and sanitation, while a series of housing acts between 1890 and 1903 gave them the power to clear slums, compulsorily purchase property, and to build new houses. The Council was taking advantage of these new powers by the late 1890s, demolishing unfit housing; building of new houses began in the early 1900s. The Dolemeads area was one of the first to be redeveloped, together with Avon Street and Lampards buildings.
A number of further housing and town planning acts were passed between 1909 and 1932; their primary focus remained the provision of sufficient good quality housing, but in conjunction with this they also began to consider issues of strategic town planning. In Bath, with its large number of historic buildings, there was a greater awareness than in some other cities of the need for effective town planning, including the preservation of historic buildings and control of the appearance and location of new buildings. However, none of the existing Acts provided sufficient powers for the Council to control new building in the way it wished. To solve the problem, a clause was inserted in the 1925 Bath Corporation Act (a private Act of Parliament dealing with a number of matters) to enable the Council to pass building regulation bye-laws making it necessary for those intending to construct a new building to deposit drawings of its elevation. The clause also allowed the council to establish a small Advisory Committee of non-councillors who would examine the drawings and advise the Council that proposals for buildings which were unsuitable in a location should be refused permission; the decision of the Committee, which included a qualified architect and a professional surveyor, was binding. This pioneering 'Bath Clause', was regarded as a model of good practice, and was later adopted in the private acts of other cities and towns, including Bristol.
By the early 1920s, it was recognised that there were advantages in local authorities working together in developing planning schemes for larger areas. Such joint working was made possible by the 1923 Housing Act, and confirmed and extended by later Acts. The Bath and Bristol and District Joint Regional Planning Committee was set up in December 1923; it consisted of representatives of the cities of Bristol and Bath and a number of Urban District and Rural District Councils in Somerset and Gloucestershire, with observers from Gloucestershire and Somerset County Councils. The Committee met infrequently after the first year, and came to an end in 1937. Its main achievement appears to be the report it commissioned from Professor Patrick Abercrombie and B F Brueton, which was published in 1930 as the 'Bristol and Bath Regional Planning Scheme'.
This report recognised that it might be necessary to set up joint committees covering smaller, more localised planning areas for specific purposes. Following the 1932 Town and Country Planning Act such a committee was set up: the Bath and District Joint Planning Committee, which consisted of Bath and a number of adjacent parishes in Bathavon Rural District Council. The 1932 Act authorised the making of schemes with respect to the development and planning of both unbuilt land and built-up areas, setting out what development (if any) would be permitted in them. While a scheme was being prepared, interim orders to permit or refuse development could be given, under the Town and Country Planning (General Interim Development) Order 1933; this would protect the developer from the risk of having to remove or alter buildings once the scheme was finalised. The Bath and District Joint Planning Committee received permission to prepare a scheme in July 1934. From this date, those wishing to build or make alterations could apply to the Council for an Interim Order; although it is not clear that everyone did so, a substantial amount of Interim Order planning applications have survived from this period.
In 1937, the Council obtained another private Act of Parliament. The Bath Act 1937 included, amongst other things, much relating to planning matters. In particular, it allowed the Council to make major alterations to the city centre, including moving the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases to a new site and removing or altering certain buildings to widen roads. It also provided for the compilation of a list of all buildings erected before 1820; for buildings on this list, it was necessary to obtain planning permission for any alterations. However, very little was done to implement the Act before the proposals were brought to an end by outbreak of war in 1939.
Bath suffered extensive bomb damage in 1942, during the Second World War. In 1943, the Bath and District Joint Planning Committee asked Professor Abercrombie, John Owens (Bath City Engineer) and H A Mealand (Planning Officer to the Joint Committee) to prepare proposals for the 'replanning' of Bath. The resulting report was presented at an exhibition in February 1945, and published as the 'Plan for Bath'.
Only a small number of the proposals in the report were accepted by the Council. They were incorporated into the local development plan which the Council was required to compile under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. This Act, which came into force in July 1948, brought in major changes and is usually regarded as marking the beginning of the current planning system. For the first time, it became compulsory to apply for planning permission to develop land or buildings. Councils were also given powers to preserve buildings of architectural or historic interest - marking the beginning of the system for 'listing' historic buildings. The local development plan for Bath was completed by 1952, approved by central government in 1955, and published in 1958.
The plan designated certain areas of the city as Comprehensive Development Areas, where substandard housing was to be demolished. Much of this housing, which had been given a Grade III listing, comprised Georgian 'artisans dwellings', and its demolition in the period from the late 1950s to the early 1970s led to considerable controversy. While the Council saw demolition as the best approach to the need to provide adequate housing as speedily as possible, others thought that renovation would have enabled the preservation of a significant part of the built heritage and given context to the iconic Georgian buildings which were preserved.
At the same time as tackling issues of substandard housing, the Council was seeking solutions to the problems caused by the amount of traffic passing through the streets of the city centre. In 1964 it commissioned Colin Buchanan and Partners to carry out a planning and transport study of Bath; the result of the study was a proposal for a tunnel to take traffic travelling from east to west of the city. The proposal was debated by the Council in 1971, but again aroused controversy.
The 1970s saw the development of a major 'Save Bath' campaign, backed by the Bath Preservation Trust and many others, opposing numerous Council actions and proposals. The campaign was not limited to local interest groups: 'The Sack of Bath' by Adam Fergusson, published in 1973 and a 'Save Bath' article in the 'Architectural Review' in 1975 ensured that the issues received national coverage. However, the period also saw a change in Council policies. The availability of central government grants to renovate old houses, introduced by the Housing Act of 1969, enabled the change to a policy of repair and restoration rather than demolition. From the early 1970s, small or medium-sized 'General Improvement Areas' were designated, within which owners were encouraged to improve their property (with grants available), and where as a last resort the Council could compulsorily purchase properties and renovate them. In 1976, a Conservation Study Team was set up to examine how a practical programme for conservation could be established. The resultant report, 'Saving Bath', published in 1978, was optimistic that most conservation problems could be solved. The change in attitude was cemented by the Council's employment of conservation architects from the mid-1970s, whose records (in BC/8/8) comprise a significant record of Bath's buildings. In 1979, after years of debate and consultations, the proposed east-west tunnel was also abandoned, on grounds of cost.
As part of the re-organisation of local government in 1974, Bath had become a second-tier authority, under Avon County Council. Responsibility for local planning matters, however, remained with the city: it continued to develop local plans, and to regulate building development. Avon County Council was responsible for developing a structure plan for the whole Avon area. In 1996, with the re-organisation which resulted in the creation of Bath & North East Somerset Council, the authority once more became responsible for all aspects of planning.
This description was compiled with reference to the following:
John J Clarke, 'A History of Local Government', London, 1955
Graham Davis and Penny Bonsall, 'Bath, a New History', Keele, 1996
Trevor Fawcett, 'Bath Administer'd', Bath, 2001
Adam Fergusson, 'The Sack of Bath', Salisbury, 1973
John Haddon, 'Portrait of Bath', London, 1982
Interviews with former members of staff of Bath City Council Planning Department
Internal evidence from the records
The records in this sub-fonds are extensive, and provide an unrivalled source of information both for those researching the history of particular buildings or major projects, and for those looking at the history of planning and development in Bath. They are arranged as follows:
BC/8/1 Records relating to planning strategy, including local and regional structure plans.
BC/8/2 Records relating to major development and planning projects, and public planning enquiries.
BC/8/3 Records relating to slum clearance and building of council housing
BC/8/4 Filing relating to planning matters
BC/8/5 Housing filing: records relating to the Council's responsibilities under various Housing Acts including rent control
BC/8/6 Records relating to applications for planning approval
BC/8/7 Records relating to applications for building regulations approval
BC/8/8 Records relating to conservation and listing of historic buildings
BC/8/9 Records of the Sites and Monuments Record Officer
BC/8/10 Records relating to landscape, open spaces, commons and rights of way
BC/8/11 Reports and publications from the former Planning Department library
BC/8/12 Planning department slides and photographs
Only the following series of records have been catalogued in detail.: BC/8/8/1-8; BC/8/8/10; BC/8/8/11 (part); BC/8/8/12; BC/8/8/13 (part). Cataloguing is continuing; for more information, contact the Record Office.
Related records: BC/9/6/2/104 contains papers relating to the 'Plan for Bath' exhibition
Related records held elsewhere:
Bristol Record Office holds the minutes of the Bath and Bristol and District Joint Regional Planning Committee, 1924-1937 (reference M/BCC/BBD/1/1).