Duncan Bowie, The Radical and Socialist Tradition in British Planning: From Puritan Colonies to Garden Cities (Routledge, 2017)

Duncan BowieDuncan Bowie is an esteemed figure in housing and planning circles, both until recently as an academic at the University of Westminster and, over the years and in a variety of roles, as a hands-on practitioner in London local government.  As a politically engaged figure with an unusually profound historical knowledge of his subject, he is the ideal person to write this important account of what he describes as planning’s prehistory.

Bowie sets out his stall clearly in the book’s introduction. He laments the fact that ‘we have largely lost any concept of social purpose for planning’. His book, by contrast, seeks:

to use the historical record as a basis for challenging the dominance of neo-liberal perspectives within contemporary discourse [and] to reassert the positive role of planning as understood in previous historical periods.

He asserts a Benthamite perspective ‘that planning should be about achieving the greatest good in terms of benefit to the greatest number of people’. To this, he adds an explicitly socialist goal – that it also be used:

for redistributive purposes – to advance the interests of households with less wealth and income and access to the market, to mitigate the negative impact of the free market in land, property and development and to seek a more egalitarian society.

Wren, LondonAt first glance, the book’s earlier chapters might seem of more antiquarian interest.  Early settlement planning in the British Isles and colonies was heavily inspired by religious principles. John Winthrop, the Puritan governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, famously proclaimed in 1630 that the new community would be considered as ‘a city upon a hill’ and its prosperity dependent on fealty to the one true God. But it’s suggested that even Christopher Wren’s proposed remodelling of London after the Great Fire was influenced by contemporary ideas of the form and nature of the biblical Jerusalem.

A strength of the book is Bowie’s comprehensive excavation of earlier, often neglected, texts and, for all that their language and beliefs may sometimes seem archaic, it’s striking how many echo later concerns and foreshadow more recent ideas.  For James Stuart, in his 1771 pamphlet Critical Observations on the Buildings and Improvements of London, it was clear that ‘people accustomed to behold order, decency and elegance in public, soon acquire that urbanity in private, which forms at once the excellence and bond of society’.  As a critique, suitably modified, of later criticisms of the slums and a defence of their rational replacement, that would be hard to beat.

Attempts to limit London’s growth (a key element of Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan) were anticipated under Queen Elizabeth I and Cromwell. James Claudius Loudon, in Hints for Breathing Places (1829), provided the first explicit proposal for a Green Belt; a few years later, he called for a ‘representative municipal government’ for London.  Sidney Smirke, in Suggestions for the Architectural Improvement of the Western Part of London (1834), advocated that land ‘be purchased by public money and appropriated for the use of the labouring classes’ to build subsidised working-class housing.

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The new settlement of Victoria, as envisaged by James Silk Buckingham

A following chapter discusses Utilitarian thinkers, concerned with both, in the title of the Radical MP John Silk Buckingham’s 1849 work, National Evils and Practical Remedies.  Buckingham proposed a new settlement (he called it Victoria in honour of the monarch; we might call it a New Town or Garden City) with sanitary and spacious working-class housing, free education and healthcare, careful zoning of its separate functions, all owned and managed by (in modern terms) a development corporation which reinvested profits.  Ebenezer Howard acknowledged his influence.

Robert Owen and the French Utopian Socialists are treated in succeeding chapters. The weakness of these communitarian theorists, as Bowie suggests, was their:

failure to challenge in any practical sense the contemporary domestic political and economic structures. The focus of the communitarians was on transcendence rather than reform – there was no attempt to take power within the existing society and state, only to escape from it.

He points out, however, that their followers and foot soldiers often played more practical and influential roles.

This brings us to a central thrust of Bowie’s analysis, the importance of pressure from below: reform has too often been seen as ‘something gifted by altruistic businessmen or reform politicians in parliament and in government’.  The conventional narrative, for example, focuses on the apparently humiliating failure of Chartism’s last big push in 1848; Bowie reminds us that its influence lived on in the plethora of organisations populated by former Chartists in the years which followed.

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Martin James Boon and the title page of his pamphlet Home Colonization

Here land nationalisation and home colonisation emerged as key ideas.  In 1869, for example, Martin James Boon, a secretary of the Land and Labour League, published a detailed schema for the latter – a £120m investment to buy up 20m acres of wasteland, creating 310,000 new farms and providing, in total, employment for 1,920,000.  We might, in these jaded times, see that as fanciful but it is also an anticipation of the now unfashionable Keynesianism which did once promise full employment and a reminder of what even a more moderately interventionist state with will and vision might achieve.


The London Trades Council meeting the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII), a member of the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes

Towards the end of the century, Christian socialism, positivism, the emerging social sciences provided new sources of middle-class reformism but, again, it was labour activists and organisations that concentrated attention on slum housing and its remedy. George Shipman, secretary of the London Trades Council, giving evidence to the 1884 Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes, was clear that:

It is totally impossible that private enterprise, philanthropy, and charity can ever keep pace with the present demands…What the individual cannot do, the State municipality must seek to accomplish.

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Fred Knee

That view became increasingly accepted, advocated for example by the much neglected Workman’s National Housing Council headed by the tireless activist and propagandist Fred Knee. Others accepted a greater role for private enterprise and non-state agents. Ebenezer Howard, despite socialistic influences, needed the sympathies of landowners and liberals to implement his Garden City vision.

The archetypal statists of the Fabian Society responded that they did ‘not believe in the establishment of socialism by private enterprise’. And Sidney Webb asserted that the Cooperative Commonwealth would ultimately be achieved through ‘such pettifogging work as slowly and with infinite difficulty building up a Municipal Works Department under the London County Council’.

That might seem the very definition of ‘municipal dreaming’ but, significantly, radicals and socialists, Lib-Labs and trades unionists were increasingly engaging with a state which, for a variety of reasons, was belatedly showing an interest in tackling slum conditions.

Much more could be said about the range of ideas, individuals and organisations arguing for a spectrum of housing and planning reform in the years leading up to the First World War. Bowie covers them fully and judiciously and I won’t attempt any summary in a brief review.  There’s also an interesting discussion in the book of the currents and cross-currents around land value taxation, long advocated as a fairer and more progressive tax, supported by most reformers before the 1914 war and interestingly revived in Labour’s 2017 General Election manifesto.

William ThompsonI’ll put in a word too for William Thompson, councillor and alderman and later chair of the National Housing and Town Planning Council – the man who masterminded London’s first completed council homes, in Richmond, in the mid-1890s.

The book throws up some surprising gems.  William Morris is known as a central figure in the Arts and Crafts movement and less celebrated as a revolutionary socialist but few have seen him as an early proponent of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. Here he is writing in 1884 on ‘Homes for the Poor’ in the Social Democratic Federation journal, Justice:

It might be advisable, granting the existence of huge towns for the present, that houses for workers should be built in tall blocks in what might be called vertical streets…This gathering of many small houses into a big tall one would give opportunity for what is also necessary for a decent life, that is garden space round each block.

From the 1890s, two key and lasting shifts in the housing and town planning field were taking place.  One was the central role increasingly advocated for local government, first significantly formalised in the 1890 Housing of the Working Classes Act.  Even Howard’s Garden Cities Association recognised this when it organised a conference on local authorities and town planning in 1907 – over 100 councils participated. Howard’s eventual successor and later chair of the Town and Country Planning Association, Fredric Osborne, acknowledged this more forcefully.


Sir Albert Rollit in an image by Spy captioned ‘Municipal Corporations’ from Vanity Fair, 1886

To some this was Socialism but, in essence, it was, in the words of Sir Albert Rollit (Conservative MP and sometime chair of Association of Municipal Corporations) in an 1889 speech to the revolutionaries of the National Union of Conservative Associations, a simple acknowledgement that:

Men must meet Socialism itself. It stalks abroad and we must look in its face. Not shirk from it as a spectre only to be avoided. In its one sense of the State, the Municipality or public bodies, doing what men cannot do, or do so well, for themselves, the principle has been adopted in many of those statutes which are our own work…

We would wish that present-day Conservatives in the face of the current housing crisis would forsake their current free market dogma for this practical truth understood better by their predecessors.

The second shift was the professionalisation of the field as RIBA and the Institution of Municipal and County Engineers took up the gauntlet, as various practitioner organisations were formed, as the subject became the focus of university teaching.

Municipal Housing John Burns Signature

This copy of Thompson’s pamphlet on municipal housing, signed by John Burns and presumably from his personal library (now held by UCLA), illustrates the cross-play of ideas and personnel in the pre-1914 era

The pivotal moment, for Bowie, was the 1909 Housing and Town Planning Act; legislation championed by John Burns, former trades unionist and socialist firebrand, as President of the Local Government Board in Asquith’s Liberal government. It further extended the planning role of local government and ensured that new settlements were no longer the preserve of philanthropy or private initiative.  (The legislation’s role in relation to council estate layout and design is discussed in my earlier post on the London County Council’s Old Oak Estate in Hammersmith.)

When it comes to public housing, the political and social impact of the First World War is usually taken as decisive.  Bowie’s analysis offers an important corrective by showing how widely accepted core principles of state support and local government agency in housing and planning had become before 1914.

In doing so, he rescues the role and ideas of these early pioneers. Though, as he acknowledges, much of their work comprised polemic and campaigning, by the turn of the century, radical and socialist ideas had become influential and increasingly accepted as both necessary and practical.

For Duncan Bowie:

the lesson of history is that arguments for change can sometimes actually lead to the change taking place. Such positive outcomes are not achieved without passion, belief and hard work. Change does not come quickly – nor is it inevitable.  That would be a lesson well learnt.

It’s a lesson well taught in his book too and it should be an inspiration for the current generation of housing and planning activists and practitioners fighting to ‘reassert the core Benthamite principle of planning for the public good against the practice of planning to enable private gain’.

Publication and purchase details of the book are available on the Routledge website


Duncan has created an invaluable website containing links to a podcast, images and many of the primary sources related to the book.

Anyone concerned with our current housing crisis and a progressive response to it will also be interested in another of his books, Radical Solutions to the Housing Supply Crisis, on sale from Policy Press for £7.99.