Why Wales is Different … when it comes to planning

Roger Tanner introduces a project about the history of planning in Wales *.

This article was,written for, and first published in the Royal Town Planning Institute Cymru’s newsletter Cynllunio in Winter 2013.


A new Wales Planning Bill is on the horizon and it will most likely confirm the specifically Welsh approach to planning that has been gathering momentum since devolution in the 1960s and in particular since the advent of the Welsh National Assembly in 1999. Is this a good thing though and is the distinctly Welsh approach being proposed the right one? This article attempts to provide an answer to the first question and perhaps provoke a few thoughts about the second one.

This piece is a precursor to a series of landmark articles that will appear in Cynllunio in 2014 (and will be republished on this website during 2014) that will consider the fortunes of planning in Wales over the past 100 years as part of the centenary celebrations of the Town Planning Institute (It did not become ‘Royal’ until much later). It rather audaciously attempts to summarise the previous 1,900 years of town planning in Wales in a few paragraphs that will both set the scene for next year’s more detailed deliberations and also draw attention to some aspects of the distinctivenes of Wales in planning terms.


Before considering historical influences on planning in Wales however, it would be appropriate to consider the huge impact that the topography of Wales has had on planning and development both in the past and the present. It is the topography of Wales that most obviously suggests a rationale for a distinctively Welsh approach to planning problems and opportunities. Extensive mountain ranges have prevented the coalescence of settlements into large cities, dictating instead a dispersed settlement pattern that demands in turn an efficient regional transport framework. Fast flowing rivers and streams present particular challenges and solutions for flood control but also opportunities for mini hydro schemes. The relative scarcity of flat easily developed land presents practical challenges to builders but also opportunities for more visually spectacular developments. With the sea surrounding Wales on three sides we should be adept at tackling declining seaside resorts and at least as advanced as the Scots at exploiting wave power. (I know, we aren’t).

mini-hydro plant
Above: A mini-hydro plant does not take up much space

The building professions in Wales should therefore be experts at building on hillsides and exploiting the opportunities offered by a sloping site. Yet examples of more imaginative use of sloping sites are rare. For example providing pedestrian and vehicular accesses at different levels, reversing the normal living room downstairs, bedrooms upstairs arrangements in order to take advantage of views and realising the potential to create visually dramatic developments. Yet too many Welsh homes are situated in the shadow of a mountain ridgeline or are oriented away from the sunny south. These issues are not unique to Wales but their relative importance is very different to the priority factors across the border and so should loom much larger than they currently do in Welsh planning guidance and best practice.

Planning in Wales before 1913

The most important point to start with in a consideration of the history of urban Wales is that for the vast majority of Welsh history the country has been predominantly rural and the towns that did exist were alien colonies imposed in the wake of military conquest. Large historical cities never got the chance to evolve and grow in Wales, so our cities are of relatively recent origin and most of the urban population still lives in small towns and villages.

Although there is evidence of concentrated settlements in prehistoric British hill forts it was the Romans who first introduced urban centres into Britain and numerous towns, forts, and villas were built across southern Britain, including Wales, during four centuries of Roman rule. After the Romans left they fell into decay but while most of the Roman towns in England subsequently became thriving medieval towns this was not the case in Wales, where even today, Caerleon village occupies a small fraction of a still undiscovered Roman town whose intact walls surround it – a potential Welsh Pompeii! This reflected Welsh society and polity, which remained fragmented and fundamentally agricultural throughout the period of Welsh independence. Today it means that fortuitously, much of Roman Wales is not buried beneath extensive layers of later development but readily accessible in open fields, if only we had the inclination to explore and develop this potential tourism asset.

While the Norman conquest and subsequent pacification of England took three years, it took them three centuries to conquer Wales. This is a crucial difference in the development of the two countries. In much of Wales the manorial system did not become entrenched in the way it did in rural England until much later in the Medieval period. For part of my planning qualifications I wrote a thesis comparing and contrasting Shirenewton and Mynydddbach in Gwent. These two villages are less than half a mile apart but one is a typical English nucleated village whereas the other follows the Welsh pattern of scattered dwellings each master of its own little domain (no prizes for guessing which is which!). A debate is perhaps needed about how relevant the nucleated village model is in Wales given the historical and geographical context described above.

medieval flint
Above: Flint – a classic medieval Bastide town

During the process of conquest another distinctive feature of Wales arose in the creation of an astonishing number of castles – even the smallest Welsh town of any antiquity boasts one of these iconic symbols of medieval power in its vicinity. Another legacy of the conquest period was the re-introduction of towns into Wales – and planned towns at that – in the form of the semi-military ‘bastides’ which formed the nucleii of English occupation in recently conquered areas.

Over many centuries the military function of Welsh towns ceased to be relevant and the weekly market became the main driver for the creation of the settlements which evolved into the pre-industrial towns of Wales. In his book ‘The Towns of Wales’ Harold Carter identified 54 ‘market towns’ in Wales by 1611 (using Speed’s maps, some of which are reproduced here) of which 23 had some other administrative or judicial function as well as a market (1). Four he classified as ‘Grade 1 towns’ (Brecon, Carmarthen, Denbigh and Caernarfon) by virtue of their being Chancery & Exchequer locations but all were tiny compared to the principal towns and cities in other European countries.

Above: Carmarthen – “the largest towne in Wales” in 1610 – but not that large really

By 1832 the number of market towns had risen to 73 of which just over half (39) had a wider function than the market (2). These old Welsh towns comprise a rich heritage of which we can be proud and should be striving to conserve. In Denbigh – one of the oldest of our county towns, a local THI team is peeling back the layers of history to reveal Georgian, Jacobean and even medieval houses behind 19th and 20th century facades.

Denbigh THI
Above: Denbigh’s Townscape Heritage Initiative has helped restore this Medieval building

Carter’s 1832 list contained a handful of towns with a population of over 10,000. Merthyr Tydfil (22,082) Swansea (13,694) and Newport (10,915) were developing into Wales’ first industrial towns (Cardiff at this point still had only 6,187 inhabitants) and these were the precursors of the second generation of Welsh towns and indeed cities, which form the bulk of urban Wales today.

Even this relatively modern outburst of urban development had a distinctively Welsh flavour however, dictated in part by the hilly nature of the topography we noted earlier. Instead of vast sprawling industrial cities and large towns the typical settlement arising from the Industrial Revolution in Wales was the compact very high density mining or quarrying village clinging to the sides of the hills where the minerals that powered the industrial revolution were to be found. Wales has over a hundred of these settlements, complemented by scores of small to medium sized industrial towns and the three port cities on the South Wales coast.

Amid this chaos was a significant number of planned or ‘model’ settlements, such as Butetown/Drenewydd near Rhymney or fanciful geometric layouts such as Oakdale (Horse shoe) and Abertysswg (butterfly). In rural Wales a number of estate villages were built at this time and in suburbia, Garden Villages such as Rhiwbina began to appear in the years before the Great War. Often now subsumed beneath later developments they are at least worthy of conservation area status and a campaign to increase awareness of these early planning experiments.

The vast majority of Welsh towns and villages in this period were unplanned, however, like Ystalefera, “built in a hurry 150 years ago”. This has produced its own distinct set of problems and opportunities. A major problem for us is the infrastructure that accompanied these ‘instant’ towns and villages 100 years ago becoming obsolete all at once. I have spent most of my working life trying to introduce into some of these settlements in South Wales the public squares, public artwork and integrated transport
infrastructure that these hastily thrown up unplanned settlements originally lacked. But although of humble origins the towns and urban villages of industrial Wales are studded with splendid examples of the urban architecture of the working classes – the chapels, institutes and pubs ignored by the National Trust but the very essence of this industrial nation. Again the conservation of this rapidly disappearing built heritage is a distinct challenge to Welsh planners today.

Maes yr onn
Above: Maes yr Onn – a pioneering off grid dwelling showing that Wales can lead the way in planning sustainable development in the countryside

Settlement Pattern

The combination of topographical constraints and historical factors has produced a very distinctive settlement pattern in Wales. Although most of the population live in urban areas, a relatively small percentage (around 23%) live in cities, unlike most developed countries and England in particular. Urban Wales consists predominantly of small towns and high density urban villages, justifying in my view a distinctly Welsh approach to town planning.

For several decades now, what could be regarded as the ‘corporate sector’ both private and public, has been withdrawing from smaller towns and villages throughout the UK as the economic benefits of centralisation plus the ability to do business over the internet has diminished the need for a physical presence in every settlement. This presents a challenge to planners in every country but particularly in Wales where it affects a far greater proportion of the population. Part of the response should be to ensure that facilities are retained in at least part of each sub-region through the identification of appropriate centres for them and the development of effective transport links between service hubs and residential settlements in the area – in other words, regional planning! So Wales does need a distinctive planning system – not to be different for the sake of it but to address the unique combination of planning challenges and opportunities that the history and topography of Wales has presented us with now and in the

(1) The Towns of Wales; Harold Carter; University of Wales Press 1966 p. 35
(2) Ibid p. 53

* Roger Tanner and Clive James are leading a project on the history of planning in Wales as part of the RTPI’s Centenary celebrations.
Roger Tanner is also a member of Cardiff Civic Society.

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Posted in heritage, magazine, planning
One comment on “Why Wales is Different … when it comes to planning
  1. Thoughtful as always from Roger.

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