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The Study of Physical Change in Town Centres: Research Procedures and Types of Change Author(s): J. W. R. Whitehand and S. M.

Whitehand Source: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 4 (1983), pp. 483-507 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Stable URL: . Accessed: 05/05/2011 03:13
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S. M. WHITEHAND Universityof Birmingham of Department Geography, Revised MS received 15 February 1983

ABSTRACT. This paper is concerned with the physical development of town centres in Britain since the First World War, and gives particular attention to the treatment of data sources, the types of physical changes that have occurred, and the firms and organizations responsible. The compilation of data from local authority building plan applications for the commercial cores of two towns (a county town and a suburban town) is described, and the various types of physical changes undergone by the two centres, especially rebuildings, additions to existing buildings and structural alterations, are analysed. The variations over time in the locations of these changes are examined in relation to the characteristics of the firms initiating, designing and implementing them. The timing of the changes, the replacing of local property interests by national ones, and the relative importance of company architects appear to have been affected by the positions of the two town centres in the urban hierarchy. National owners and architects, especially the retail and service chains, established a strong foothold in the main retail areas in the inter-war period but with the more recent redevelopment of sites on the periphery of the centres for office blocks national firms have acquired control over the greater part of both centres. There has been a tendency for activity to be dispersed among more firms over time since, although the number of large firms operating on a national scale has increased, within each centre individually such firms tend on average to have been involved in fewer plans than the local firms that they have replaced. The rise to prominence of consultants and a diversity of specialized contractors is a striking feature of the post-war period.

the Town- and city-centres are the product and the trysting-place of a variety of agents and activities. Most obvious, since they provide the raison d'etre of this focal area, are the businesses and organizations that supply the goods and services of a commercial core, together with their employees, customers and clients. These have been the subject of a large and varied body of research over a long period (for example, Jefferys, 1954; Cowan et al., 1969; Cameron and Evans, 1973; Edgington, 1982). Less obvious perhaps, but increasing in importance in recent decades in British cities, and the subject of considerable recent research (for example, Stocks and Gleave, 1971; Alexander, 1974a; Sim, 1980), are the planning authorities, and more particularly their policies and decisions. Least studied are the numerous firms and organizations that create and maintain the individual buildings and other structures that constitute town- and city-centres as physical entities. These are the developers, funding agencies, property owners, architects, building contractors, consulting engineers and a variety of other professions and trades concerned with the construction and maintenance of the physical fabric; only the first three of these have been the subject of more than a modicum of research (for example, Bateman, 1971; Barras, 1979). Completing the urban core and giving it physical substance are the built-forms themselves, especially the buildings, in which most of the agents already mentioned carry out their activities. The interest of social scientists in this physical aspect has been sporadic (for
Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr. N.S. 8: 483-507 (1983) Printed in Great Britain



example, Solomon, 1966; Sim, 1982) and the amount of research small by comparison with most other research on the commercial core, especially on its functional aspects. This imbalance in research on town centres is difficult to justify. The changing physical fabrics of town centres and the firms and organizations that are in large part responsible for bringing about these changes merit consideration on a par with functional and technological developments and changes in planning philosophy and practice. This paper, therefore, seeks to correct this imbalance: first, by identifying some major, but elementary, questions suggested, but left largely unanswered, by previous research on changes to the physical fabric of town centres; secondly, by describing the sources and procedures upon which research on these questions must depend heavily; and thirdly, by presenting the results of a case study. No previously determined research framework exists for undertaking this task. A number of largely unrelated studies of the physical fabric of the central business district carried out during the 1960s provide a useful background (notably Conzen, 1962; Buissink and de Vidt, 1967; Cowan, 1967; Davies, 1968). More direct antecedents of the present study are to be found in a quite recent and more concerted attempt to investigate the physical changes that have characterized town- and city-centres in Britain since the middle of the nineteenth century (Whitehand, 1978, 1979; Luffrum, 1980, 1981). However, these studies consider physical change mainly in terms of aggregate changes in the economic and population characteristics of urban areas and the introduction of innovations. None give much attention to the firms and organizations involved in the development and management of the physical fabric. Nevertheless, their findings suggest the potentialities of an examination of the interrelationships between several groups of variables: first, variations over space and time in the incidence of different types of change; secondly, the locations and other characteristics of those initiating, designing and implementing changes; and thirdly, the urban hierarchy and changes in the population catchments of centres. Of especial relevance to the second group of variables are findings described elsewhere on the concentration of activity among fewer firms at the national level, (Whitehand, 1983, pp. 44-7). There is a need to assess the extent of any such tendency in individual centres of different types, and to examine more generally the manner, timing and effects (including those in the townscape) of the supplanting of local firms by national firms. Further, it is reasonable to suppose that all these variables will be related to the changing social and economic climate, both national and local, although deriving satisfactory measures of the latter is difficult. In the light of these findings, and of the inferences that arise from them, priority will be given to two main questions. First, what variations have there been over time in the locations of physical changes within town centres and what have been the associated variations in the characteristics of the firms initiating, designing and implementing them? Secondly, what changes have there been in the number and type of firms-in particular to what extent has activity been concentrated within fewer firms over time-and how has the timing of the activities of firms varied between centres?

The search for answers to these questions is constrained by the nature of the sources of data. Indeed, two major reasons for the paucity of work of this type are ignorance of the requisite records and the extremely time-consuming nature of the work involved in extracting the relevant information from them. It is necessary, therefore, to consider the nature of the sources, before discussing the selection of town centres for study.

The study of physical changein town centres


For virtually every significant change to the physical fabric of British towns and cities (ranging from minor drainage modifications through shopfront alterations and building extensions to complete redevelopments) there is, and in the case of most local authorities, has been, e at least since the end of the nineteenth century, a legal requirement to submit a building plan application. This should not be confused with a planning application, which for many changes was an additional requirement after 1947. Building plan applications and records associated with them are extant for many places from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The information that is filed in connection with each application varies over time and from one local authority to another, but among the items normally included are the address of the property affected by the application, a block-plan of the property, detailed plans of the work to be undertaken (including, where appropriate, sections and elevations), the name and address of the person for whom the work was undertaken, and the name and address of the architect. Other information that is included with increasing frequency towards the present day is an indication of whether the plan was implemented, the names and addresses of the consultants, builder and civil engineering contractor, and specialized contractors, the area of new floorspace created, and an estimate of the cost of the work. In toto the of amount information is vast, since even quite small towns have undergone in excess of one thousand physical changes within their commercial cores alone since records began. The contents and availability of building plan applications and the problems encountered in using this remarkable fund of potential knowledge that they provide have been considered by Aspinall and Whitehand (1980). It is necessary to consider the most efficient way of sampling the huge quantity of building plan applications, mostly still in the possession of local authorities but occasionally held in local records offices, in order to answer efficiently the questions that have been posed. It is apparent from the sheer quantity of material for even a medium-sized town centre that we cannot study a whole range of towns unless they are very small indeed, since the labour of extracting inforvery mation from the applications is so great. There are major advantages in being able to consider centres in their entirety and, in view of the longevity of the phys ic (Luffrum, 1980, the p. 171), in examining a long time-span. Furthermore, some of the questions that have been posed require that comparisons be made between centres. Somewhat arbitrarily, we elected to two study two town centres, and to select exemplars of two major types of British town-the freestanding administrative and commercial centre with a long history, and the increasingly numerous suburban town that, as a major centre at least, is largely a product of the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries, albeit usually having grown out of an older settlement. In socioeconomic structure, appearance and history these two types of town differ considerably and, prima facie, it is reasonable to suppose that differences exist between the agents of change at work in them: for example, in the timing of the introduction of metropolitan firms and, given the differences in the strength and diversity of the economies and institutions of the two types of town, in the extent to which firms initiating, designing, and implementing changes are local or drawn from outside the town. In selecting the two towns the desirability of making comparisons with and augmenting the few previous studies on related topics, and of providing a base from which future work could proceed was taken into account. Practical considerations, notably the length and quality of the building plan records available for particular towns, and the manner in which they were indexed and stored weighed heavily. Since the closest previous studies undertaken, though having different objectives, focused on a major city centre (Whitehand, 1978) and on small town centres in southern Scotland (Whitehand, 1979) and East Anglia (Luffrum, 1980, 1981), it was desirable to examine towns of intermediate size in order to cast light on regularities already identified for the extremes of the urban hierarchy. After a postal survey of all local authorities



in England and Wales (Aspinall and Whitehand, 1980) and subsequent enquiries and visits to individual towns, Northampton and Watford were chosen. Their town centres have population catchments of similar size and their records enabled exactly comparable data to be extracted for the period from the First World War onward. Northampton exemplifies the historic county town with an important commercial function and some industry, and Watford is in many respects an archetypal suburban town. Northampton is situated about 100 km north-west of London and there is no other major town in its immediate vicinity. It had a population of about 157 000 within its administrative boundaries at the 1981 Census. In its major social and economic characteristics it is close to being an average English town (Moser and Scott, 1961, pp. 134-5; Law, 1967, p. 130), although its population growth has been well above average since 1971 associated with its designation as a 'New Town'. Watford, with a population of about 74 000 at the 1981 Census, has throughout the period for which records are available had a much smaller population within n but if the populations of adjoining built-up its administrative boundaries thaampton, areas are included-thus providing a better indication of the population catchment of its town centre-its population had grown by 1951 to a level similar to that of Northampton, growth during the first half of the twentieth century having been particularlyrapid. It is unambiguously a suburban centre, being situated about 25 km north-west of the centre of London and, although administratively a town in its own right with a long history, its development within the twentieth century has been inextricably bound up with the growth of the Metropolis. The commercial cores of the two towns were delimited in the field on the basis of the distribution of commercial land use (largely retailing and offices) in 1980. The street plans and shapes of the two cores reflect to some extent their different functional characteristics. Northampton, with its diverse functions as the old-established administrative centre of a sizeable, predominantly rural county, has a core with a complex street system with many minor streets housing a great range of specialized services. Watford's core, in contrast, consists essentially of an elongated street market that in the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries has accommodated the massive influx of retailing activities for a burgeoning surburban town by extending its length greatly but adding comparatively little in terms of commercial core functions to the few streets meeting it at right angles. In both towns outlying office buildings and arterial shopping ribbons that extended out from the core and comprised local rather than central-area shops were excluded from the definition of the commercial core. Northampton's building plan records date from 1860 and those from Watford from 1889. The Building Control section of each borough council maintains a card index of building plan applications arranged by site, and these indexes cover long periods, from 1916 in Northampton and from 1889 in Watford. Comparisons between the two towns are restricted to the period from 1916 to 1979, and only occasional reference is made to the additional information available for the 1890-1915 period in Watford.

For each site within the commercial cores a card (more than one if the number of applications required it) was prepared based on the site cards in the indexes maintained by the two boroughs. Each site normally comprised a single plot, although sometimes it included more than one plot (if for example plot amalgamation had taken place) and occasionally only part of a plot (if for example plot subdivision had occurred). On this basis there were 845 sites in Northampton and 492 in Watford, if both the sites in the new shopping precincts (60 in Northampton and 43 in Watford) and the previous sites out of which they were created are included. Site cards

in Thestudyof physical change towncentres


normally contained the registration numbers of all building plan applications submitted, brief descriptions of the changes proposed in the plans, the dates of receipt of the plans, and the decisions by the Council. Those approved plans the description of which indicated the possibility that a rebuilding, addition to floorspace of any kind (including temporary structure) or structural alteration to an existing building was involved, and some in Watford for which a description was lacking, were identified. Cases in which the same plan was recorded for more than one site and/or street were noted in order to avoid inflated counts in subsequent analyses based on number of plans. Counting multiple entries only once, for the period 1916-79 there were 647 applications in Northampton and 630 in Watford, there being a further 123 in Watford for 1890-1915. Of those for 1916-79, 107 in Northampton and 93 in Watford proved on examination of the actual files to be not in fact for rebuildings, additions or structural alterations; all of these in Northampton were plans that were ambiguously described in the card index, whereas in Watford only 45 were in this category, the remainder being plans for which a description was lacking in the card index. One application in Northampton and 17 in Watford proved to be located outside the commercial core, having been incorrectly entered in the card index, and four of the Watford plans were so deficient in information as to be unusable. Forty-two of the remaining 539 applications in Northampton and 54 of the remaining 516 applications in Watford were not implemented, although it should be noted that where an application was resubmitted in amended form the original application only has been recorded as not implemented if the amended application was separately registered in the card index. Plans that were not implemented were eliminated from further consideration. Unfortunately confirmation that a plan had been implemented was frequently lacking in the documents filed with an application, and where doubts existed recourse to other sources was necessary, notably to subsequent plans submitted for the same site or part of it, Goad Fire Insurance Plans in the case of Northampton (Aspinall, 1975), and field observation. A small minority of applications were missing. In Northampton two of these were for major rebuildings (that is, involving the replacement of the main building on a plot) that were known from other evidence to have taken place, and these were included in the analysis as far as the availability of information permitted. Six missing applications in Northampton and 11 in Watford (ten of which were for the period 1916-79) were for rebuildings, additions or structural alterations the implementation of which was unconfirmed; these were excluded from the main analysis-according to the card indexes none were for major rebuildings. For a further 25 missing applications in Watford (all for the period 1916-79) information was lacking in the card index about the work involved and/or whether the application was approved. These too were necessarily excluded from the analysis, but even if a sizable number of them were in fact implemented, which is doubtful, only a small minority are likely to have been for rebuildings, additions, or structural alterations. Finally, there were a small number of physical changes which evidence of various types suggested had taken place but which were not recorded in the local authority card indexes. Without plan registration numbers it would have been a lengthy task to establish whether there existed any applications relating to these changes, and no attempt was made to incorporate them. For the 1916-79 period there remained 497 plan applications for analysis in Northampton and 462 in Watford, there being in addition 111 for 1890-1915 in Watford. From these applications the following information, where available, was transferred onto the card or cards for each site: an amplification of the description of the plan, the date of commencement of the work, the estimated cost of the work, the area of any new floorspace, and the names and addresses of the applicant, the building owner, the architect, the consultants, the builder and civil engineering contractor, and the specialized contractors.



The entries on the site cards for the applications for the multitude of lesser changes, ranging from shopfront alterations to changes to the drainage system, were then checked for multiple entries of the same application and also to eliminate those approved plans for which there was at least circumstantial evidence that they had not been implemented-for example where essentially the same plan description was repeated within a year. The information on the site cards for the remaining entries, when added to the data for rebuildings, additions and structural alterations, provides the basis for a general conspectus of the whole range of physical changes that have taken place in the two towns, totalling over the 1916-79 period 1890 plans in Northampton and 1664 in Watford. However, unlike the rebuildings, additions and structural alterations, in each town only about 100 of the actual applications for the mainly lesser changes were consulted, mostly in connection with the checking of card entries for which the plan descriptions were missing or ambiguous. The resultant data are therefore less accurate and much more limited than for the major changes. In the case of the rebuildings, additions, and structural alterations, all information was transcribed plan-by-plan from the site cards onto a set of cards for each town for each decade. From these, further cards were prepared, again for each town separately, for each plan initiator, architect, consultant, builder and civil engineering contractor, and specialized contractor, giving information about the plans that each was involved in and the names and addressses of the other firms, organizations and individuals that were involved. The cards for each type of firm (architects, builders, etc.) were filed alphabetically by the name of the firm. Firms were categorized according to the information provided in the application and in any accompanying material, such as correspondence. Builders preparing plans in cases in which the services of an architect were not enlisted were not recorded as architects, nor were the firms preparing plans for work on their own premises unless they possessed their own architect or architect's in department. In a few instances a single firm acted professionally more than one capacity, either on the same project or on different projects (for example, as an owner and as an architect, or as a consultant and as a civil engineering contractor): such firms were indexed according to each function that they performed. Where a role was shared by two or more firms, all firms were recorded. Unless otherwise indicated, in the analysis each involvement in a building plan, whether the firm, organization or individual concerned was acting solely or jointly, was given equal weighting. Thus, for example, if two architects were engaged in connection with a single building plan application each was recorded as having submitted a plan. As well as having the operational advantage of avoiding fractions, this had the minor but arguably not undesirable effect of giving added weight to the major constructional works, since it was these that tended to involve the sharing of responsibilities among more than one firm of the same type. In practice, however, it was rare for more than one building owner, architect or builder to be involved in the same building plan, and the number of plans worked upon by firms of these three types may (with certain provisos to be noted in the discussion of missing information) be regarded as similar to the number of building plans implemented. In contrast, the presence or absence of consultants and if present their number was more variable and there was even more variability in the case of specialized contractors. Arguably the most important firms in property development and management are those initiating plans, normally referred to as the building owners in the building plan applications. However, some of those recorded as owners in the applications were in fact lessees, and in a substantial minority of cases the true owner of the building could not be established without recourse to other sources. Thus the term 'initiator' rather than 'owner' is generally used in the discussion of the results, although for most of the major additions to floorspace and structural

The study of physical changein town centres


alterations, and for almost all major rebuildings, the initiator was in fact the building owner. In the few cases in which the names of the building owner and the lessee were both recorded, the building owner was treated as the initiator unless there was strong presumptive evidence that it was the lessee who was the prime instigator of the changes. In addition to the small number of building plan applications that were missing, sometimes specific pieces of information were not recorded in an application. This was by no means simply an omission on the part of the applicant: for example, it sometimes reflected the fact that a particular profession or trade had not been employed, as for instance where the builder, rather the than an architect, had prepared the plans. Occasionally the name of a firm was recorded without an address and vice versa, and in some instances the address of an owner was given as the site were the work was undertaken, although the firm's main office was elsewhere. Some cases of doubt over addresses were resolved by consulting other sources, such as the Stock Exchange and the addresses used in the analysis were those of the head offices of firms unless Yearbook, there were grounds for supposing that work on the plan had been the responsibility of a regional office, as was the case with some of the major national firms. In view of the different reasons for which a particular category of information might be unrecorded and the loss of information that would have resulted by eliminating plans for which information might in any sense be regarded as incomplete, it was decided to use all available information, even though this inevitably meant that the plans used for the analysis of different aspects (for example, the location of architects and the location of builders) were not identical.

An initial conspectus of changes to the physical fabric of the two central areas (Fig. 1) reveals both similarities and differences.The continuous, if uneven, course of change in both cases was marked by two major periods of decline in activity of all kinds associated with the two World Wars, which effectively divide the study period into inter-war and post World War II phases. A further development common to both centres and occurring on an almost national scale, at least in central areas of this size (Davies and Bennison, 1979), was the creation of major new shopping precincts-Grosvenor Centre in Northampton and Charter Place in Watford-during the 1970s: these were on a scale unparalleled in the redevelopment histories of either town. Since they are large relative to the number of separate plans for major rebuildings that were involved, they tend to show up in Figure 1 mainly in the subsidiary plans, for example, for shopfitting (recorded as 'other changes'), that they brought in their wake. Two other broad similarities between the centres are apparent. First, as is commonly the case, though rarely acknowledged, additions to existing buildings greatly outnumbered major rebuildings: in Watford in the ratio 4-3:1 and in Northampton in the ratio of 3 -7:1. Although individually many of these additions were small, in total they represent major increases in floorspace, albeit often concealed from the street. Secondly, the post-war period has been characterized in both centres by an unprecedented number of piecemeal changes, especially in the form of alterations, conversions and facade changes, which far outnumbered changes involving increases in the provision of floorspace. These similarities apart, a number of differences in the timing of changes in the two centres are apparent. While both centres underwent a fairly continuous process of demolition and rebuilding of their major structures, in Northampton there was a major boom in such rebuildings in the 1930s, with 29 cases occurring in the period 1934-39. There was no such boom in Watford, although an appreciably higher than average rate of rebuilding occurred between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s. A not dissimilar difference between the two centres occurred







521 0-



A2C 50 A50 S D CAGS







40 Y e a r



7 Ye a r

FIGURE 1. Types of changes to the physical fabric of the central areas of Watford and Northampton, 1916-79 Notes I Excludes alterations or conversions associated with additions 2 Excludes facade changes associated with additions, alterations or conversions 3Excludes other changes associated with additions, alterations, conversions or faqade changes

The study of physicalchangein town centres

+ 25+ 20 -







-51921/31 1931/51 * 1951/61 1961/71 1971/81

FIGURE 2. Decennial population changes. In Watford the percentage changes are in each case based on the populations within

the 1974 Borough boundaries. In the case of Northampton, where a number of alterations to the administrative boundaries have occurred, the following boundaries have been used in calculating percentage changes between Censuses: 1935 County Borough boundaries for 1921-31 and 1931-51; 1971 County Borough boundaries for 1951-61; 1974 Borough boundaries for 1961-71 and 1971-81. In assessing the graphs the poor correspondence between administrative areas and the population catchment areas of

the centresshould be bornein mind, especiallyin the case of post-warWatford.

Note *Owing to the absence of a Census in 1941 the percentage changes for 1931-51 have been divided by two in order to equate

them with decennialchanges

in the case of additions to existing buildings, such activity being higher in the inter-war period than in the post-war period in Northampton, whereas in Watford the pattern was essentially the reverse, with additions to existing buildings reaching a peak in the 1950s and 1960s. These differences between the two centres would not seem explicable in terms of changes in the size of the populations upon which the two centres have drawn (Fig. 2). Although comparisons of population changes are problematic, owing in particular to the difficulty of making an accurate assessment of Watford's function as a centre for adjacent but administratively distinct urban areas with which it now merges, there is no doubt that in the inter-war period the grew more quickly than that of Northampton, both population of Watford's catchment area in absolute and percentage terms. Furthermore, this position has now reversed and, although this reversal may be essentially a feature of the 1970s rather than the whole of the post-war period, it is evident that over the study period the relative number of plans for additional floorspace in the two centres has been the inverse of what might have been anticipated from population changes. What seems to have been more important than population change is the larger population base with which Northampton entered the inter-war period (perhaps about twice that of Watford) and its more diversified economic, social and administrative structure. In short, the existence of some sort of hierarchical effect (Whitehand, 1979) seems likely. The timing of the building activities of national firms that may underlie such an effect will be examined later. The remainder of this paper is concerned with three of the most important types of changes-rebuildings, additions (both extensions to existing buildings and free-standing auxiliary buildings) and structural alterations. Unless otherwise indicated the data under consideration are for these three categories of change collectively.

Previous work in a much larger centre has revealed a tendency in the long term for rebuilding to occur with above average rapidity in major shopping streets (Whitehand, 1978). This same tendency is apparent in both Northampton and Watford (Fig. 3). The main shopping axes,





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+\ +


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~~~~DraperY + 4- + +^ +


+ +

+ -

+ -










6+ +++..\"







400 m

* Major rebuilding

+ Addition

A Structural alteration

FIGURE Distribution majorrebuildings, 3. of additionsand structural alterations



principally Gold Street-Abington Street and Drapery in Northampton, and High Street-The Parade in Watford, had a high incidence of major rebuilding in the inter-war period and again in the 1950s and 1960s, except that Northampton's Gold Street underwent a marked decline in such activity after the Second World War as the physical fabric adjusted to the shift in the focus of retailing activities away from this street that had already been evident in the 1930s. Major rebuilding for offices, though of more limited extent in the inter-war period (especially in Watford) than in the larger city centres that have been examined previously, had the same tendency to shift outward as was apparent in those centres (e.g. Alexander, 1974b, p. 147; Barras, 1979, p. 34; Catalano and Barras, 1980, p. 72; Sim, 1982, p. 76). In the 1960s it became pronounced on the peripheries of both centres and had become the main characteristic of the spatial pattern of rebuilding by the 1970s, by which time rebuilding in the shopping streets had almost ceased, with the notable exception of that associated with the major new shopping precincts. Such similarities are not evident when additions to existing buildings are examined. abought Although in both centres major increasesin floorspace were brought about by the construction of additional accommodation at the rear of plots and to a lesser extent by vertical extensions, the timing was different. In Northampton there were large numbers of such extensions during the inter-war period in the main shopping streets and in the office and subsidiary shopping street of St Giles Street. In Watford this type of morphological change did not reach its peak in the main shopping street until the 1960s, by which time the tails of most of Northampton's central plots had been replete with buildings for several decades. Indeed most of the plots in Northampton's main shopping axis had been approaching the climax phase of the burgage cycle (Conzen, 1960, p. 92ff, 1962, p. 400ff) at least by the First World War, a stage that much of Watford High Street had only reached in the 1960s. This reflects not only Watford's much smaller size until the post-war period but its comparatively limited development of functions other than retailing. Whereas Goad Fire Insurance Plans of central Northampton show that as early as 1888 the tails of the majority of plots were crammed with warehouses and workshops, the Ordnance Survey 1/2500 plans of Watford surveyed in 1870/71 and 1896 provide strong evidence that comparable plots were still primarily used as private gardens even at the end of the nineteenth century. By the post-war period the areas in Northampton with the most additions to existing buildings were, almost perforce, more peripherally located, notably in the triangle between St Giles Street and Derngate where dwelling-houses had been converted into offices. By the 1970s in both centres the scope in the major shopping streets for additions to existing buildings, at least in a horizontal plane, was minimal, although an increase in the number of structural alterations-previously negligible except where associated with building extensions-was evident.

The changes that have been described are, of course, the products of numerous chains of decision-making, each one of which normally involves several firms or organizations. At the beginning of each decision-making chain is the initiator of the plan, usually the owner of the building where a major reconstruction is involved but often a lessee if the change is a minor one. The roles of these initiators are clearly crucial, since not only do they set in motion a train of events that leads towards a change to the physical fabric but they exercise a major influence over the choice of other firms and organizations that participate in the later stages of the development process. There is at least circumstantial evidence to suggest that nationally decision-making has

Thestudyof physical in change towncentres


become concentrated among fewer initiating organizations in the post-war period (Whitehand, 1983, pp. 44-6), with individual firms being responsible for hundreds of plans over the country as a whole. This is reflected in Watford and Northampton in the fact that the number of firms initiating plans for rebuildings, additions or structural alterations in both centres rose from five in 1920-39 and four in 1940-59 to ten in 1960-79. Despite this fact, however, there is no evidence of a trend towards the concentration of decision-making within fewer hands in the two centres considered individually comparable to that at the national level. Care is, of course, needed in assessing the figures that might be taken as a measure of this, and it should be borne in mind that the size of the sites to which plans for major changes to the physical fabric refer tended to increase in both centres, at least after the Second World War, most noticeably in the case of the plans for the redevelopments that brought into existence a shopping precinct in each centre in the 1970s. Nevertheless, in Watford the proportion of plans by firms initiating three or more plans remained steady at about one-third over the three periods 1920-39, 194 079 (Fig. 4a). More surprisingly, in Northampton this proportion was actually substantially lower in 1960-79 (22 per cent) than it was in 1920-39 (41 per cent). The corresponding percentages of plans from firms initiating two or more plans reveal similar temporal trends (Fig. 4b). The paradox of a concentration of decision-making in fewer hands nationally but no such tendency, or even a reverse tendency, within individual centres is explained when it is realized that none of the firms that have amassed large amounts of property nationally-notably the insurance companies, pension funds, banks, chain-stores, and development companies-have individually initiated plans for more than a few properties within our study centres, and this may well be true of the majority of town- and city-centres. The national firms that have been most active individually, such as the Prudential and the Norwich Union, occupied fewer sites and implemented fewer plans in central Northampton in 1960-79 than the most active local owners (such as A. R. & W. Cleaver Ltd and P. Phipps & Co. Ltd) had done during 1920-39. Although fewer local owners had survived into the inter-war period in Watford, there too in

Per cent

(a) Three or more plans

Per cent

(b) Two or more plans




^^^^ 4070-




50 -


Initators ,Architects Years

Ye0-s Initiators 30
_** \ \ / Builders - *_ _-\ InitiatorsWator ---- > ---< -0


1920-39 1940-59 1960-79

1920-39 1940-59 1960-79

Years Watford Northampton


FIGURE 4. Percentage of plans for rebuildings, additions and structural alterations involving firms undertaking (a) three or more

plans (b) two or more plans



Watford * Northampton









5. additionsand structural alterations involvinginitiatorsthat were active in both towns FIGURE Numberof plans for rebuildings,

terms of both number of sites occupied and number of plans implemented the larger local owners did not differ greatly from their national successors of 1960-79. If the Co-operative Societies and the Gas and Electricity Boards are excluded, over the 1920-79 period 24 firms or organizations initiated rebuildings, additions or structural alterations in both centres (Appendix I), but the incidence of the activities of these firms and organizations was quite different in each case. In Northampton they were divided almost equally between 1920-49, with 29 plans of this type implemented, and 1950-79, with 30 such plans implemented, whereas in Watford only 12 of these plans were implemented during the period 1920-49, compared with no less than 57 during the period 1950-79 (Fig. 5). This discrepancy is much greater than would have been expected from the difference between the two centres in the incidence of all rebuildings, additions and structural alterations. If the dates of the first plans initiated by the 24 firms/organizations in the two centres are examined, the Northampton one was earlier in 17 cases, with in one case plans being initiated in the same year in the two centres. Northampton's larger population catchment, at least until the Second World War, and its much more mature and diversified economic structure may well be factors underlying this difference in the timing of investment in the two centres. This difference should also be seen in the context of the greater variety and number of local firms investing in Northampton throughout the 1920-79 period. It is possible to divide the initiators of major rebuildings into owner-occupiers and speculative developers, although the distinction is not always clear-cut and the two types of owner operated in close proximity to one another in both centres (Fig. 6). In Northampton there was a change from a predominance of owner-occupiers in the inter-war period to a predominance of speculative developers in the post-war period. In Watford speculative developers already predominated in the inter-war period. Despite the predominance of speculative developments the proportion of major rebuildings undertaken by retail and service chains rose in both towns in the post-war period. Among the speculative developments the proportion undertaken by














OWNER-OCCUPIERS * Cha'in a Other limited company



0 Undifferentiated ?UNRECORDED


classifiedby type of initiator FIGURE Distribution majorrebuildings 6. of



organizations, as opposed to individuals, increased markedly. Among major rebuildings as a whole-that is both speculative developments and those for owner occupation-the decline in the proportion undertaken by individuals (inferred from the plan applications by the presence of a title such as Mr, Mrs, Dr, or Esquire, or simply a surname and initials) compared with corporate bodies (mainly limited companies) proceeded more rapidly in Northampton. The proportion of individuals initiating major rebuildings was already less than one-fifth in the inter-war period in Northampton whereas in Watford the proportion was still approximately one-half, although in assessing this difference it is necessary to bear in mind possible variations in the precision with which initiators names are recorded in the building plan applications. Since the Second World War the initiation of a major rebuilding by an individual has been a rarity and there were no cases in either centre in the 1970s. The longer survival of ownership by individuals in Watford may seem inconsistent with the earlier decline of local ownership referred to previously, since the large majority of individual owners were local. The paradox is explained by the greater ownership by local companies and other corporate bodies in Northampton, in keeping with that town's more developed local economic base. Although there is little or no intra-centre variation between the sites of speculative developers and owner-occupiers responsible for major rebuildings, there are differences between the locations of the major rebuildings of initiators from inside and outside the study towns (local and non-local initiators in Figure 7). In both centres owners from outside the town established a strong foothold on key sites in the core of the retail area in the inter-war period, the periphery being dominated by local owners. In the post-war period non-local owners have dominated both centres, core and periphery. The changing provenance of the initiators working in the centres and how this related to the provenance of the various types of firms involved in the later stages of the development process, a major topic in itself, needs further investigation and analysis. The remainder of this paper simply examines individually the main types of firms that are engaged in actually preparing and implementing plans for changes.

As far as the constructional aspects of physical change are concerned, normally the first adviser to be engaged by an initiator of a plan involving structural work is an architect, usually identifiable from the plan as a professional architect although very occasionally he is a member of a related profession (for example, a surveyor). Only in the case of a minority of applications for rebuildings, additions or structural alterations (almost invariably cases in which only minor structural works are involved), is an architect not recorded. In rare cases this would appear to be an omission by the applicant but more often it is evident that the builder has prepared the plans or occasionally that a shopfitter or the owner himself has undertaken this work. The percentage of plans for which an architect (or similar specialist) was not recorded has tended to diminish in both centres over the study period, although this was not apparent in Northampton until the 1960s and in Watford there was a rise in the 1970s largely accounted for by shopfitters preparing plans (Fig. 8a). A substantial minority of initiators, but the majority of national firms, had their own architects' departments, employing one or more professional architects. In the case of Watford the percentage of architect-designed plans (including the minority prepared by allied professions) that was prepared by company/organization architects increased fairly steadily from 2 per cent to 46 per cent between 1920-29 and 1970-79 (Fig. 8b), reflecting to a large extent Watford's climb up the urban hierarchy. Over the same period in Northampton the trend was quite








? *




I If

400 m

+ Local

* Non-local

? Unrecorded

of of 7. FIGURE Distribution the majorrebuildings local and non-localinitiators

(a) Architects Per cent 5040 3020 100 , 1920-29 , 1930-39 , 1940-49 Years

not recorded Per cent 5040Wa tford t




, , . \, " . /


, 1930-39 1940-49 Years 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79

, 1950-59

, 1960-69

, 1970-79

, 1920-29

(a) Percentageof plans for rebuildings,additionsand structuralalterationsfor which architectswere not recorded; architectsfor rebuildings,additionsand structuralalterations a percentageof all plans of as (b) Plans by company/organization this type

different, fluctuating between 31 per cent and 11 per cent with the highest percentage being reached in 1930-39 and reflecting the boom in the town at that time in activity by retail and service chains. The tendency for plans to emanate from a wider spread of firms over time was more pronounced among architects than among initiators of plans (Fig. 4). In Northampton four-fifths of the plans implemented between 1920 and 1939 were from firms responsible for three or more plans, and four firms (F. H. Allen, Brown & Henson, Carter & Coles, and H. J. Ingman, to give them their late-1930s names) accounted for nearly one-half of the plans implemented, a situation comparable to that existing in Watford in the two decades before the First World War. The proportion of plans implemented by firms responsible for three or more plans in Northampton had declined to about one-half by the post-war period. In Watford it had already declined to just over one-half in the inter-war period and by 1960-79 it had declined further still to just over one-third. This tendency for work to be spread among an increasing number of architects is related to the increasing number of initiators from outside the towns. The hegemony of a small number of local architects has been considerably eroded but the share of the market that they have lost has been captured by a wide range of firms operating on virtually a national scale. Over the 1920-79 period sixteen firms of architects (nine of them company architects' departments) were responsible for major rebuildings, additions or structural alterations in both centres (Appendix I). The activities of these essentially national firms were more concentrated in the 1930-39 period in Northampton than would have been anticipated from the distribution between the two centres of activity as a whole (Fig. 9). This is largely a reflection of the investment priorities of the retail and service chains, influenced no doubt by Northampton's more assured market at the time. Differences between local (based in the town) and non-local architects are also apparent in the intra-centre distribution of the works that they undertake. In the case of majorrebuildings, the areas within the centres where local and non-local architects were involved were to some extent transposed between 1920-49 and 1950-79 (Fig. 10). This partly reflected changes in the types of locations that attracted initiators from outside the towns. In the 1920-49 period the main shopping streets were dominated in Northampton, though much less so in Watford, by the national chain-stores with their own architects, local architects on the whole being engaged on peripheral buildings, used for a variety of purposes and often locally-owned. In the 1950-79 period, while Watford was dominated almost entirely by architects from outside the

The study of physicalchangein town centres



Watford Northampton



E 5-

1920-29 1930-39 1940-49 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79


FIGURE9. Number of plans for rebuildings,additionsand structuralalterations preparedby architectsthat were active in both


town, especially those from London, in Northampton the main points of activity for outside architects were the large office blocks located on the periphery, with Northampton architects undertaking about one-half of the mainly comparatively small building replacements within or close to the main shopping streets.

After the architects in the chain of decision-making tend to come the consultants, the builders and civil engineering contractors, and the specialized contractors, although not all these professions and trades are necessarily involved in every plan. Consultants, mostly describing themselves as 'consulting engineers', were employed in connection with only a small minority of the plans for rebuildings, additions and structural alterations in either centre until the post-war period. Even in 1950-59 the proportion was less than 10 per cent, but it then rose steeply in both centres, especially in Northampton, where 71 per cent of such plans in 1970-79 involved consultants (Fig. 11a). The frequency distribution of consultants by number of plans implemented in 1960-79 yields further evidence that the dispersion of activities among a large number of firms is by no means incompatible with the existence of large firms operating on a national scale. In each centre only about one-quarter of the plans for rebuildings, additions or structural alterations were accounted for by firms undertaking three or more plans, a smaller proportion than in the case of architects, particularly in Northampton, and not dissimilar to the proportion of initiators that undertook three or more plans. Yet as many as nine consultants were involved in both centres during this period, and these nine accounted for 23 per cent of the plans on which consultants were engaged in the two centres: the comparable figure for the seven architects engaged in the two centres was only 9 per cent and for the ten initiators 13 per cent. This reflects the national scale of the spheres of influence of many consultants. The initiators in this respect occupy an intermediate position between the consultants and the architects, many of the most prolific of the architects still being local firms, particularly in Northampton. The tendency for activity within each centre considered individually to be spread among





'. .i
A/\ .

'e,I ^ 7,p- .__@_g







+ Local

* Non-local

? Unrecorded

10. FIGURE Distribution of major rebuildings by local and non-local architects

The study of physicalchangein town centres

(a) Consultants Per cent

contractors recorded

employed Per cent


(b) Specialized

605040302010 ----10Q/




, 1940-49 Years 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79 1920-29

O 1930-39 1940-49 Years 1950-59 1960-69 1970-79



FIGURE 11. Percentage of plans for rebuildings, additions and structural alterations (a) on which consultants were employed (b)

for which specialized contractors were recorded

more firms over time is also detectable among the builders and civil engineering contractors (the 'builders' in Figure 4), although owing to the small number of such firms for which information was available in Northampton for the period 1940-59 and in Watford for the period 1920-39 this tendency must be viewed with caution. The fact that only five firms were engaged in both centres between 1960 and 1979, and that these firms accounted for only 8 per cent of the plans in the two centres taken together, reflects the relative rarity with which the majority of builders and civil engineering contractors undertake work at long distances from their home towns. Specialized contractors are scarcely recorded in the plans before the 1930s, although clearly. the basic trades, such as joinery and plumbing, have had a long history. The boom in specialized contracting from the 1950s onward (Fig. 1lb) was, with the exception of shopfitting, predominantly associated with structural engineering, and the materials associated with it, and with fire precautions. In detail, however, the variety of specializations was large, over 50 in Northampton alone, even if some similar activities are amalgamated. About one in five plans in Watford between 1970 and 1979, and about two in five over the same period in Northampton, involved specialized contractors, numerous separate firms having been recorded in the case of major developments. Unlike the firms already considered, many of the specialized contractors provide quite distinctive products and services, one specializing in pipe insulation, for example, having little in common with another specializing in concrete beams. Since so many distinctive products/services are involved, some only occurring once, it is not surprising that in both towns about two-thirds of the firms involved submitted only a single plan over the whole period 1920-79, the proportion for the period 1960-79 being about the same in Northampton and nearly four-fifths in Watford. Despite the national spheres of influence of many firms, even during the very active 1960-79 period only five firms were involved in both towns and accounted for only 8 per cent of the specialized contracts recorded.

The results of this study must necessarily for the moment remain poorly connected to existing research in urban geography since scarcely any directly comparable work has been undertaken previously. The horizons are, however, wide for this type of research. We have indicated the scope for analyses that can restore the physical fabric to an urban geography that has shown



unmistakeable signs of treating social and economic characteristics independently of the town as a physical entity. More especially we have illustrated the means for rectifying the imbalance between on the one hand studies of the functional organization of town centres and on the other the study of the firms that play a major role in shaping these centres as physical entities. It would be premature to claim a major substantive contribution to understanding how commercial cores change physically but the main findings of our particular case study merit a brief summary. There is a presumption in the pattern of investment in the centres of Northampton and Watford, particularly by the retail and service chains that have been active in both towns, that the timing of rebuilding and the cumulatively no less important additions to existing buildings was related to a major extent to the different social and economic structures of the towns over a long period, not least the smaller size of Watford's population catchment until 1951. This is borne out by the strong survival of the property interests of local individuals in Watford as recently as the inter-war period, and the delay in that town of the main phase of investment by the retail and service chains until well into the post-war period. In inter-war Northampton, in contrast, local investment in the physical fabric, particularly in major rebuildings, was predominantly by companies and was accompanied by investment by national firms on a much greater scale than in Watford. Since most of the retail and service chains have their own architects' departments, these differences of timing are reflected in the proportion of plans prepared by company architects in the two centres, reaching a peak in Northampton in the 1930s but in Watford in the 1970s. In other respects, however, there are clear parallels, including in some cases similarities of timing, between the two centres. In both cases there was a change in the 1970s, reflecting to some extent national trends, from rebuilding by chain-stores in the main shopping streets to comprehensive redevelopments for central shopping precincts and the construction of dispersed office blocks near the edges of the central areas. Partly related to these changes, owners from outside the towns, having established a strong foothold in the cores of the retail areas in the inter-war period, by the 1970s dominated almost the entire area of both centres: a parallel outward shift tended to occur in the areas where architects from outside the towns were employed. A further major similarity between the two centres is the absence of any tendency for an increasing concentration of activity among fewer firms. If anything the trend has been the reverse in the case of initiators, architects, and builders and civil engineering contractors. This is accounted for by the tendency for firms operating on a national scale to be involved in fewer plans within each centre considered individually than the local firms that they have replaced. The relatively small number of specialized contractors and consultants before 1950 and the disparate nature of the services provided by the specialized contractors prohibit meaningful comparisons with these firms, although it is noteworthy that in the case of the consultants the existence of large national firms in the last two decades is associated with a degree of dispersion of activities broadly comparable with that among other types of firms. The rise to prominence in the post-war period of consultants and a large variety of specialized contractors is itself a striking feature of both centres. In the case of the consultants the relatively large share of the combined market held by firms operating in both centres reflects their more national spheres of influence: at the other extreme, the builders and civil engineering contractors seldom undertake work at long distances from their home towns. An assessment of the representativeness of these findings must await comparable studies of other towns. As they stand, the facts uncovered in Northampton and Watford are arguably less important than the foundations that the study as a whole has laid for the development

The study of physicalchangein town centres


of a line of research that is of major importance to an understanding of the urban landscape. What is evident above all is the major potentialities of building plan applications for elucidating one of the great unknowns of urban morphology-the firms, organizations and individuals responsible for the renewal and management of the physical fabric. Recognition of these potentialities must, of course, be tempered by an awareness of the heavy investment of time that is necessary for the exploitation of material of this type, not only in the task of extracting information but in its careful sifting in order to obtain reliable data. Nevertheless, there would appear to be no serious obstacle to progressing rapidly beyond the questions on which our particular case study has focused. By way of extension of these questions two matters have high claims to priority for further study: first, the variations between centres in the extent of the activities of firms from different localities; and secondly, the relationships (especially those concerned with location) between the firms responsible for initiating and preparing plans and those implementing them. Clarification of these matters will leave the way clear for an examination of the links between the characteristics of firms and the appearance of their creations in the townscape. A knowledge of these links is fundamental to an understanding of the development of the townscape and to establishing a proper basis for its future management.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS The authors are indebted to Mr J. D. Lillywhite, Chief Building Control Officer, Northampton Borough Council, and Mr D. W. Shepherd, Chief Building Control Surveyor, Borough of Watford, and the staffs of their two Departments, for their generous co-operation in providing access to their records. They are also indebted to Miss M. E. Arnold, Local History Librarian, Northampton Central Library, for helping to trace relevant records, and Mr P. Surridge, General Manager, Chas E. Goad, Ltd for arranging the loan of those revisions of Goad Fire Insurance Plans of Northampton that were not readily obtainable elsewhere. The research was funded by the Social Science Research Council. Closely related work is being undertaken by Mr P. J. Aspinall, Miss J. S. M. Kingston, Mr I. A. Thompson, and Mr R. J. Pain, all fellow researchers at the University of Birmingham, to whom the authors are indebted for comments on a variety of aspects on the research. Mr R. G. Ford and Mr T. R. Slater made helpful comments on a draft of the paper and Mr T. G. Grogan prepared the diagrams for publication.


Firms or organizations involved in rebuildings, additions or structural alterations in the central areas of both Northampton and Watford, 1920-79. The names of the firms are those recorded in their most recent application. Initiators Barclays Bank Ltd British Home Stores Ltd Montague Burton Ltd Central Commercial Properties Ltd Circuits Management Association Ltd Foster Bros Clothing Ltd Great Universal Stores Ltd Halford's Ltd Irvine Sellars Ltd H. Kingham & Sons Ltd Littlewoods Ltd Lloyds Bank Ltd Manfield & Sons Ltd Marks & Spencer Ltd Martins Bank Ltd Midland Bank Ltd National Provincial Bank Ltd Norwich Union Insurance Societies Prices Tailors Ltd Prudential Assurance Co. Ltd J. Sainsbury & Co. Ltd Westminster Bank Ltd F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd Y.M.C.A. Architects Barclays Bank Ltd Barker, Hammond & Cox A. E. Batzer



Montague Burton Ltd Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd Egan & Pytel Hillier Parker May & Rowden Littlewoods Ltd Manfield & Sons Ltd Marks & Spencer Ltd Munro & Partners North, Robin & Wilsdon Prices Tailors Ltd Prudential Assurance Co. Ltd Whinney Son & Austen Hall F. W. Woolworth & Co. Ltd

Broad & Gloyens Bylander Waddell Partnership Ground Explorations Ltd T.Y. Ho & Partners James-Carrington & Partners Sir Frederick Snow & Partners R. H. Harry Stanger H. L. Waterman & Partners

Square Grip Reinforcement Designs Ltd R. Stephenson Ltd Truscon Ltd Trussed Concrete Steel Co. Ltd

and Builders Civil Contractors Engineering

Banister Walton & Co. Ltd Bovis Ltd H. Fairweather & Co. Ltd Kyle Stewart (Contractors) Ltd Marley Buildings Ltd Portable Concrete Buildings Ltd Mathew T. Shaw & Co. Ltd

Contractors Specialized
British Reinforced Concrete Engineering Co. Ltd Constone Ltd Contest C. M. T. Ltd Courtney Pope Ltd Dawnays Ltd Pollards of London Ltd

W. S. Atkins & Partners

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