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Ribbon development and urban sprawl

Ribbon development and urban sprawl

The map illustrates the potential urban sprawl and destruction of the countryside that would have occurred in Thanet if the Planning Acts had not been introduced. (The banner picture shows ribbon development near Spalding, Lincolnshire.)

In my first planning job I had to plot planning application boundaries on maps of Thanet (Kent) which had been in use since 1947. It was therefore possible to see all the development applications that had been made in that area 1947-1963. I copied the boundary information by hand onto a 6" map of Thanet, as shown in the accompanying pictures. The aim of the planning policy was (and still is to some extent) to try to protect the separate identity of the three Thanet towns: Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate. If the development application sites shown in brown had not been refused by the fledgling planning service, these towns would have been merged together, leaving fields stranded and out of sight behind endless rows of bungalows. Without the planning controls, this pattern of sprawl would have been repeated wherever there was demand for housing throughout the country.

These days Town Planning gets a lot of criticism, but we should not forget the immense amount of good that has been achieved through effective and democratically determined controls over indiscriminate and exploitative development.

Control of so-called "ribbon development" (as illustrated in the maps) actually pre-dated the main Town & Country Planning Act of 1947, through the "Ribbon Development Act of 1935. This Act set out the problems of ribbon development as perceived at the time:

  1. a reduction in the carrying capacity of the highway, due to vehicles standing thereon while serving buildings. Danger is caused by these standing vehicles and by other vehicles making exits from drives or garage crossings;
  2. a needlessly high cost of providing services for this linear type of development;
  3. an increased number of service connections under the highway, with consequent detriment to the surface broken up for the purpose;
  4. interference with the amenities of the highway by the masking of the view of the countryside; and
  5. difficulties in connection with the provision of schools and communal buildings for the occupants of the houses.

The definition of "ribbon development" in the Act was "a type of development which consists of the erection of buildings along the frontages of existing highways, each building with direct access to the latter."

Essentially, ribbon development was an attempt by developers to exploit the public highway in order to avoid or minimise access costs.


Ribbon development, urban sprawl, suburbia, planning controls, Planning Act

images (4)

Ribbon development in Thanet (Kent) successfuly blocked by Planning process 1947-1963
Ribbon development in Thanet (Kent) successfuly blocked by Planning process 1947-1963 (part)
Ribbon development in Thanet (Kent) successfuly blocked by Planning process 1947-1963 (detail)
Some that got away (built before planning got a grip) near Broadstairs (copyright Google)

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