History of Building Regulations

Elevation of a villa in Carnoustie 1905 (Angus Archives)The British Isles has a long history of legal controls on building construction, which have generated records of interest for building historians. This outline aims to explain the types of building control record and where to find them.

It all began in London. The densely-packed housing of the capital created problems which could only be tackled communally. A house could block the light from its neighbours. Thin party walls and badly-sited privies and gutters were other nuisances. These issues were tackled in a set of building regulations usually dated to 1189, and certainly earlier than 1216.1Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis vol. 1: Liber Albus, Rolls Series [12] (1859), 321-31 (the original Latin text); English translation: H. T. Riley, (ed. and trans.), Liber Albus (1861), 276-87. The greatest hazard was fire. After a major fire in 1212, thatched roofs were banned in London by the city's first mayor, Henry Fitzailwin.2Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis: Liber Custumarum, Rolls Series [12], vol. 2, 86. Complaints about building nuisances could be brought by one neighbour against another. The mayor and aldermen settled such cases in a court called the Assize of Nuisance. Their judgements survive from 1301 to 1431.3H. M. Chew, and W. Kellaway (eds.), The London Assize of Nuisance 1301-1431: A calendar, London Record Society vol. 10 (1973). The full text is online. They were advised by masons and carpenters appointed as viewers, whose reports are preserved for 1509 to c.1554 and 1623 to 1691.4Corporation of London Records Office COL/SJ/27.

Other British cities gradually followed London's lead. As early as 1391 Bristol had a viewer who inspected buildings for encroachments onto the street.5The Little Red Book of Bristol, ed. F.B. Bickley (1900), vol. 2, p.65. Worcester's ordinances of 1467 showed concern for the dangers of fire. Thatched houses and timber chimneys were not allowed within the walls.6L. Toulmin-Smith (ed.), English Gilds, Early English Text Society, 372, 386. Stone, brick and tile were safer materials within urban areas. Yet timber-framing remained popular for centuries. As the population grew, space was at a premium within city walls. Storey was piled on storey. By the end of the Middle Ages tall, jettied timber houses overhung narrow streets in many a town and city.

It was this pattern that fueled the Great Fire of London in 1666, which wiped out 80% of the city. That disaster led to the London Building Act of 1667, the first to provide for surveyors to enforce its regulations. It laid down that all houses were to be built in brick or stone. The number of storeys and width of walls were carefully specified. Streets should be wide enough to act as a fire break. This first Act applied to the walled City of London.7T. Reddaway, The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (1940). The Building Acts of 1707 and 1709 extended that control to Westminster. They added a prohibition on timber cornices and required brick parapets to rise two and half feet above the garret floor. A comprehensive Act in 1774 covered the whole built-up area. Its detailed set of regulations included the stipulation that doors and windows should be recessed at least four inches from the front of the building. (The statute set a fashion which was soon emulated outside London.)8M. Girouard, The English Town (1990), 124; David Iredale and John Barrett, Discovering Your Old House (2002), 51, 144. The returns of the District Surveyors survive from 1774.9London Metropolitan Archives MR/B, MBO; Surrey History Centre QS5/9A.

By the 18th century some kind of building control had been established in many British cities. In Scotland each medieval burgh operated a Dean of Guild Court, which dealt with rights of access and nuisances. So when the burghs began to develop building regulations in the 17th century, they fell within the remit of the Dean of Guild Court. Surviving Court records are usually in local archives, but some are in the National Archives of Scotland.10Iain Gray, Dean of Guild Court Records in Scottish Archives, The Journal of the Scottish Records Association, vol. 5 (1999). After Edinburgh suffered a series of fires, an Act of the City Council in 1674 gave the Court authority to enforce new building regulations, ratified in 1698 by an Act of the Scottish Parliament. Among other things it restricted buildings to five storeys.11 Howard Colvin, The beginnings of the architectural profession in Scotland, Architectural History vol. 79, 172.

The London Building Acts provided prototypes for provincial towns. When Warwick was destroyed by fire in 1694, it was rebuilt under an Act of Parliament modelled on that of 1667 for London.12P. Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance (1989), 90-5. Later Building Acts were passed for Bristol (1778 and 1840) and Liverpool (1825 and 1842).13Anthony Ley, A History of Building Control in England and Wales 1840-1990 (2000), xvii, 3, 25. The returns of Bristol's surveyors survive from 1788.14Bristol Record Office

More commonly though towns sought to tackle a variety of problems through local improvement Acts. An Act of Parliament in 1757 established the Wide Streets Commission for Dublin. It operated until 1851, generating minute books, architectural drawings and maps, which are held by Dublin City Archives. Between 1800 and 1845 nearly 400 improvement Acts were passed for 208 towns in England and Wales. They might be concerned with street cleaning and lighting, or more ambitious. Acts for creating new streets and widening old ones gave the local authority at least a limited degree of building control.15S. Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England (1983), 4-6. Building regulation was a patchwork of different provisions in different places.

In the early Victorian period central government became concerned about the conditions of the urban poor. Outbreaks of cholera created alarm. A series of government inquiries identified problems of overcrowding, lack of water and sanitation. Home Secretary Lord Normanby proposed a national building Act in 1841, to apply to all borough councils in the British Isles. The bill failed. However some of its proposals were incorporated into the Metropolitan Building Act of 1844, which once again extended the area covered by London's building control.16S. Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England (1983), 7-15.

It was a series of Public Health Acts that established a more consistent apparatus for controlling the urban fabric. The first such Act in 1848 had limited impact on buildings, but laid out the framework of local authority in England and Wales, known initially as boards of health. The Local Government Act of 1858 extended the powers of these local authorities to regulate the structure of buildings through bye-laws. The government issued a set of guidelines called the Form of Bye-laws, which were followed quite closely by most English and Welsh urban authorities in the 1860s. The Public Health Act of 1875 and associated Model Bye-laws consolidated building control.17S. Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England (1983), 21-51. A similar Act was passed for Ireland in 1878 and one for Scotland in 1897.

Plan of a villa in Carnoustie 1905 (Angus Archives)This burst of Victorian regulation generated records of great value for the historian. The Act of 1858 permitted local boards in England and Wales to require the deposit of plans for any new buildings or alterations.18S. Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England (1983), 23. In Scotland the Dean of Guild Courts became almost exclusively concerned with building regulation in the Victorian era and continued in that role until their abolition in 1975. After 1897 they too required plans to be submitted to them. 

Many of these plans survive in local record offices. The catalogue of Cardiff's impressive collection is online at Cardiff: The building of a capital. Over 20,000 Dean of Guild plans for the Royal Burgh of Dumfries are being entered into an online database. Details of plans for some 17,000 Plymouth properties are included in Plymouth and West Devon Record Office's online catalogue and many plans for other places in England and Wales can be traced though Access to Archives, but many other building control plans are not catalogued online, so it is worth checking in the appropriate archive. 

The Public Health Act in 1936 brought in new model bye-laws, but as before they were simply guidelines. So requirements could vary from one authority to another.

Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to adopt national regulations. The Building (Scotland) Act in 1959 created the power to do so. The first set of Building Regulations was published in 1963 and came into force in 1964. England and Wales followed suit. The Public Health Act of 1961 was the statutory instrument and the first regulations were published in 1965. They came into operation in February 1966 throughout England and Wales, apart from the Inner London Boroughs. The Building Regulations (Northern Ireland) Order of 1972 established regulations for Northern Ireland modelled closely on those for England. There have been several revisions of the various regulations subsequently.

The Republic of Ireland has followed a separate but nearly parallel path since independence. The Town and Regional Planning Act of 1934 created local planning authorities. This was replaced by the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act of 1963, which included the power to create national building regulations. The more comprehensive Building Control Act 1990 established building control authorities. Building regulations were published under that Act and have been revised periodically.

Under the present system, planning applications, complete with plans, are deposited with the planning departments of local councils. They are held in council offices, where they can be viewed on request. Older plans may be deposited in local archives.

For current legislation and regulations for England and Wales see the government's Planning Portal.

Notes

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  1. Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis vol. 1: Liber Albus, Rolls Series [12] (1859), 321-31 (the original Latin text); English translation: H. T. Riley (ed. and trans.), Liber Albus (1861), 276-87.
  2. Munimenta Gildhallae Londoniensis: Liber Custumarum, Rolls Series [12], vol. 2, 86; English translation by Stephen Alsford.
  3. H. M. Chew and W. Kellaway (eds.), The London Assize of Nuisance 1301-1431: A calendar, London Record Society vol. 10 (1973). The full text is online.
  4. Corporation of London Records Office COL/SJ/27.
  5. The Little Red Book of Bristol, ed. F.B. Bickley (1900), vol. 2, p.65.
  6. L. Toulmin-Smith, English Gilds, Early English Text Society, 372, 386.
  7. T. Reddaway, The Rebuilding of London after the Great Fire (1940)
  8. M. Girouard,, The English Town (1990), 124; David Iredale and John Barrett, Discovering Your Old House (2002), 51, 144.
  9. London Metropolitan Archives MR/B, MBO; Surrey History Centre QS5/9A.
  10. Iain Gray, Dean of Guild Court Records in Scottish Archives, The Journal of the Scottish Records Association, vol. 5 (1999).
  11. Howard Colvin, The beginnings of the architectural profession in Scotland, Architectural History, vol. 79, 172.
  12. P. Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance (1989), 90-5.
  13. Anthony Ley, A History of Building Control in England and Wales 1840-1990 (2000), xvii, 3, 25.
  14. Bristol Record Office
  15. S. Martin Gaskell, Building Control: National legislation and the introduction of local bye-laws in Victorian England (1983), 4-6.
  16. Ibid, 7-15.
  17. Ibid, 21-51.
  18. Ibid, 23.