Office of Works, 1378-1832
The origins of the Office of Works and its successors lay in the medieval royal household, where royal clerks were assigned responsibility for the construction and maintenance of royal castles and fortifications, royal residences and a range of other 'king's works' for successive monarchs.
From 1378, a formal structure emerged; by the early seventeenth century the Surveyor General of the King's Works and a board of senior officials controlled a substantial and wide-ranging operation. Regulations issued for the conduct and operation of the Office of Works in 1609 placed it under the control of the Lord Treasurer.
In 1660 the office was placed under the control of its four principal officers, often collectively referred to as the 'Board of Works'. After 1718 the surveyor general of the works was a layman, but the comptroller was generally an architect. Two architects of the works, first appointed in 1761, had seats on the board from 1767.
In 1782 the principal offices were abolished as part of the scheme of economic reform. They were replaced by a single Surveyor General and Comptroller of the Works, who had to be an architect or builder. The Office of Works itself was absorbed into the reorganised Royal Household, by the Civil List and Secret Service Money Act (Burke's Act), 1782.
Further reorganisation in 1814 brought the office under closer Treasury control. In 1815 it passed finally out of the royal household and was placed directly under the Treasury, which issued a code of instructions for its management.
The office was headed by a surveyor general, aided by an assistant surveyor and cashier, examining and drawing and measuring clerks and three professional 'attached architects'. Its responsibilities were extended to cover public buildings maintained by parliamentary funds, as well as royal palaces and other buildings now paid for out of the civil list, and works for ceremonial occasions.
Office of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings, Works Department, 1832-1851
In April 1832 as an economy measure the Office of Works was consolidated with the Office of Woods, Forests and Land Revenues. The Office of Works maintained its separate identity as the Works Department of the combined Office, receiving its own parliamentary vote, and headed by a Surveyor of Works and Buildings.
Office of Works, 1851-1940
Concern about the use of land revenues to finance public works independently of parliamentary votes was one factor behind the decision to separate the two offices again in 1851, bringing expenditure on public works back within parliamentary control. The Works Department was re-established as a separate office under the control of a First Commissioner of Works and Public Buildings who was appointed by royal warrant.
The Board of Works was constituted a corporation for each statute under which the Commissioners of Woods, Forests, Land Revenues, Works and Buildings had been empowered to act, and in 1852 was incorporated in more general terms with power to accept, purchase and take lands and hereditaments and to convey, lease or otherwise deal with such property with the consent of the Treasury.
The functions of the revived Office of Works were those carried out before 1832, with the addition of certain duties hitherto undertaken by the Commissioners of Woods. It was also responsible for the provision and maintenance of buildings overseas. The office's powers were codified by further legislation in 1874 and 1894.
Organisational change was frequent within the Office of Works during the second half of the nineteenth century. By the beginning of the First World War, the office consisted of a Secretariat, including a Contracts Branch; Architects and Surveyors, Engineering, Supplies, Parks and Finance Divisions; and the Ancient Monuments Branch. During the First World War, the office carried out work for other government departments on land acquisition and the erection and conversion of buildings for wartime purposes.
The Office of Works was reorganised in 1920, to make the administrative divisions of the Secretariat responsible for control and policy only; the remainder of the work was divided between eight advisory and executive divisions.
Ministry of Works and Buildings, 1940-1942, and Ministry of Works and Planning, 1942-1943
The Second World War led to the transformation of the Office of Works from a central agency service into a full-scale Ministry of Works and Buildings responsible for an area of government policy. The proposal for the new ministry came originally from the Ministry of Labour in May 1940.
The new department took over the whole organisation of the Office of Works. It was made responsible for all new civil works and buildings required by other government departments, including the provision for them of additional and emergency accommodation and the maintenance of a central register of accommodation.
Other specifically wartime functions included new building work as part of the war effort; structural precautions against damage to public buildings from air raids and repair of damage to such buildings; the co-ordination of government building programmes and control of the building and building materials industries; and long-term planning for postwar physical reconstruction.
In February 1942 the War Cabinet rejected a proposal for a central planning authority consisting of an executive council on policy and development and a new department of town and country planning, in favour of the transfer of statutory planning powers from the Ministry of Health to the Ministry of Works and Buildings. This took place in July 1942, bringing together all physical planning policy for England and Wales under a retitled Ministry of Works and Planning. In February 1943, however, the planning divisions of the ministry were removed to form the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. The Ministry of Works and Buildings was renamed the Ministry of Works.
Ministry of Works, 1943-1962, and Ministry of Public Building and Works, 1962-1970
During the later part of the Second World War and the postwar period the Ministry of Works dealt with the de-requisitioning of property taken over for government use. The wartime decentralisation of government accommodation was continued in order to provide for new postwar departments and the growth of regional and local offices of government departments. However, the ministry's responsibilities in the field of postwar reconstruction were limited to technical aspects of building policy.
Following numerous internal reorganisations under the pressures of changing war time needs, the postwar period brought a degree of stability, although various transfers of function took place between the ministry and other departments, focussing its responsibilities more clearly on buildings in official use, in respect of structure and supply of fittings and contents, and on certain aspects of the building industry in general.
In July 1962 the Ministry of Works was renamed the Ministry of Public Building and Works, with additional responsibility for studying the problems of the building industry, in particular the balance between house building and other building. The parallel and in some respects overlapping interests of the Ministry of Public Building and Works and the Ministry of Housing and Local Government were contributory factors leading to the setting up in November 1970 of the Department of the Environment, which absorbed them both, together with the Ministry of Transport.