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Land Use Sources 20th Century

Land Use Sources Part 1

Twentieth century surveys provide a rich source of information on how land was being used, and often how it had been used in the past. This article covers four such surveys, and starts with those which relate to modern planning regulations.

The roots of these regulations lie deep in the Industrial Revolution. Cheap, unregulated town housing soon turned into slums and this led, belatedly, to various Public Health Acts to ensure healthy housing development in future. These Acts had a major defect, though. They didn't allow a proposed building project to be considered in relation to other development. Planning Law sought to remedy this. Eventually, the early planning laws were consolidated into the 1925 Town Planning Act, but by then many people had moved back to the countryside and were commuting to work. They built their houses so as best to enjoy the rural amenities, while often destroying those amenities for others. So new planning laws were needed, resulting in the Town and Country Planning Act (TCPA) 1932.

The Davidge Report

Local Authorities now had to analyse where and what sort of development was likely to spread, and the resources available to sustain it - water, sanitation, transport and other essential or desirable facilities; and the whole exercise was to be publicly funded. Bedfordshire County Council published a Regional Planning Report in 1937, written by W.R.Davidge, an independent town planning consultant. This book covered everything from topography and geology to open spaces, utility supplies and mineral workings, and offered recommendations on Bedfordshire's future.

There is a hardback copy of the book on the searchroom shelves at
reference 120. It's full of useful diagrams, plans and photographs. Did you know, for instance, that in 1937 only 34 of Bedfordshire's 120 parishes had sewers and very few areas had piped water, yet most of the county had an electricity supply? The book supplies full details in an interesting and easy-to-read style.

World War II interrupted any follow-up to this work, so in 1947 a new, strengthened, TCPA was passed, which obliged every planning authority to prepare a Development and Structure Plan.

Development Plan Maps

This is where things get most interesting for the researcher. At last a series of land use surveys was carried out in Bedfordshire, from 1947 to 1952, which recorded absolutely everything on the ground from old turnpike roads and mineral workings to industrial premises and residential land. For rural areas, they included statistics like the number of food shops, doctors' surgeries and Post Offices available. Hundreds of these working survey maps have survived and are deposited with the Archives Service. Every town and parish is covered.
With the surveys complete, the County Council produced its Development Plan, with reports and new maps which summarised the survey information:

County Maps - annotated to show, for instance, main traffic routes, location of schools, industrial areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty.

Town Maps - for Ampthill & Flitwick; Bedford; Biggleswade; Leighton Buzzard and Linslade; Luton & Dunstable; and Sandy. These identified everything from industrial premises and shops to ancient monuments and tree preservation orders, using colour codes. They were constantly updated.

New surveys were regularly undertaken. In the towns, for example: –

  • Bedford & Kempston - housing, industry, pubs, churches, and many others, 1948 to 1966
  • Kempston town centre - age and condition of houses, 1965
  • Bedford town centre - demolitions 1963, age and condition of houses 1969, use of every property, with comments, e.g. "burnt out" "good condition" "inter-war", 1965
  • Luton & Dunstable - private land availability, 53 land use maps, 1947 to 1962
  • Ampthill and Flitwick - smallholdings, and buildings of architectural and historic interest, 1949 to 1966
  • Biggleswade - geology, and age of buildings, 1950 to1964
  • Leighton Buzzard and Linslade - age of buildings, and shopping survey, 1948 to 1950

In the villages, many survey maps highlighted the changes before and after 1948. Other village surveys included:
  • Arlesey- age and condition of buildings 1942
  • Barton - tree survey 1954
  • Elstow - age and condition of buildings 1963
  • Keysoe - amenities 1964
  • Sharnbrook - age and condition of buildings 1954
  • Toddington - occupiers of land 1954

Most Development Plan maps are on Ordnance Survey 25" or 6" sheets, and all are deposited with the Archives Service, under reference PLD. The code for the colouring on the maps is in the front of the PLD catalogue.

The land utilisation surveys of Britain 1931

The 'Land Utilisation Survey of Britain' was a voluntary organisation which aimed to find out how the land surface of the whole country was being used. It organised its survey under the guidance of the Geographical Association and London University. School children were encouraged to participate, along with their teachers and other volunteers such as local societies. The motivation was the rapid changes in farming practice, as many arable fields were being turned into pasture. It wanted to record how the land was being used before the old landscape changed completely.

The result in Bedfordshire was a set of 109 Ordnance Survey 6" maps covering the whole county. Each is coloured and marked to show forest, meadow, arable, heathland, garden ground, waste land, ponds and built-up land. Some are annotated with comments like "this area has now been built on". The maps are available in the Search Room, to the left of the door as you come in.

World war 2 argicultural land

To increase the country's self-sufficiency and free up merchant shipping for the war effort, the government offered farmers money to plough up their grassland. The aim was to bring an extra 1,500,000 acres under the plough. The scheme was administered in Bedfordshire by the County Council, and many of the maps recording the status of the land before and during the war years have survived and are held in the Archives.

Recording continued from 1939 to 1947, with some maps showing pre-existing land use and usually including farmers' names, crop types, and occasionally field names. Many maps also refer back to earlier years, for instance, a comment that a field had been grass since 1874. They also detail which ditches have been cleared, and which fields drained and reseeded. The grubby state of many of the maps suggests they were annotated while the surveyor was actually in the field.

A full list of the surviving maps is in the black WW2 catalogue, under reference WW2/AC3.