1.1 History of the planning system

A hundred years ago the towns had exceptionally weak opportunities to steer the development of their towns. A law in 1810 had made land a tradable commodity. When land became a tradable commodity the doors were opened for speculation in the people's need for housing. The low standards of hygiene and the great fire hazards in the towns and cities were noticed. The need to rectify these problems led to the Building Decree (byggnadsstadgan) of 1874 - this is often called the first modern building legislation in Sweden.

The Building Decree of 1874 ordered the towns to draw up and implement urban plans. It also contained a demand that the towns should have building orders and building committees. However, the Building Decree was a royal ordinance and had not been considered by the Riksdag. This meant that the decree did not have status of civil law. Thus, the towns could not force property owners to follow the plans. It was even harder for the towns to control development outside of their borders. Both conservative and radical politicians proposed measures to remedy the urgent need for housing. The conservatives saw a need for measures both to stop emigration, and to reduce the risk for a revolution. The lesson was learnt from Germany that a precondition for a harmonious development of an expanding town was that the city should possess the ownership rights of land for urban development.

There was an early realisation that the towns were legally ‘handicapped' when it came to the implementation of town plans. Several proposals were put forward. The Town Planning Act (stadsplanelagen) entered into force in 1909. Its purpose was to establish the legal relations between municipalities and property owners. It set an obligation for land owners to contribute to the costs for the implementation of a town plan. The Town Planning Act introduced the municipal planning monopoly in Sweden. Town plans were to be adopted by the town council and then be formally established by the King/Government. At the formal establishment the King could not deviate from the plan as adopted by the municipality. This was justified by reference to the implementation costs that the municipality undertook when adopting the plan. The municipalities gained both redemption rights and redemption obligations to land for streets and other land for public spaces.

The problems of ‘overgrown' building development outside the areas covered by town plans were noticed but the active municipal land policy remained a prerequisite to deal with the problems that the Riksdag had pointed at.

The Town Planning Act was reformed in 1931. Among other things this was in order to enable legally binding regulations for the differentiation of use of both building blocks as well as streets and land for public spaces. The law also gave opportunities for more detailed regulations for buildings. It strengthened the position of the city vis-à-vis the land owner by making it possible to reduce old building rights when redeveloping areas and by making it possible to claim up to 40% of undeveloped land without compensation to the land owner. Under certain conditions the Government also gained the right to establish a town plan against the will of the town. This right has only been used once during the past 75 years. This was in the 1970s when the state forced through a plan for a postal terminal between Stockholm and Solna, against the will of the town of Solna.

One of the most serious deficiencies of the 1931 Town Planning Act was that it did not enable rules on where the establishment of settlements was allowed. The exploitation of land for settlements was, in principle, free. Settlements grew in areas that could not be supplied with roads, water or sewage treatment. They spread over large areas. The most troublesome conditions were on the edges of the towns and cities. In 1947 the Government proposed an entirely new Building Act and Building Decree. To a great extent the law had been inspired by the investigations on planning and land policy that had been published in the United Kingdom. This law established the basic principle that the public is to have the authority to determine where and when built-up areas can be developed. The law states that planning is required in order for land to be utilised for the development of built-up areas and the Building Decree states that building permits must be refused for actions that contravene these regulations. A plan cannot be established for an area that is not, from the public point-of-view, suitable for built-up areas or settlements. Furthermore, a plan cannot established until the exploitation of the area is suitable from the public point-of-view. The development of built-up areas can thus be prevented by refusing to plan for them. Planning is a municipal task. There was no proposal to compensate for the lost development rights for the building up of areas. With the Building Act of 1947 the municipalities gained the right to determine where, when and how building development was to take place or be changed.

It was still a requirement that municipal plans should be approved by the Government. Its evaluation was a professional evaluation of quality. The expert authority of the Government was the old equivalent of the National Board for Housing, Building and Planning. In 1960 the examination of whether the plans should be approved or not was transferred to the county administrative boards. Since then, and supported by the municipal planning monopoly, practically all new building development in Sweden has been governed by political decisions.

The 1947 Building Act also introduced important novelties in the general planning instruments; the general plan for towns and settlements and the regional plan for areas that covered several municipalities. The general plan could become legally binding for all parties concerned by being formally established by the Government. However, that option was hardly ever used. The regional plan was also formally established by the Government but only constituted a recommendation for municipal planning. Continuous regional planning has only taken place in the Stockholm area.

National physical planning (fysisk riksplanering) was started in 1965. The background for this was a need to better be able to regulate development outside built-up areas. This concerned both industrial establishments and the leisure housing areas, which were growing rapidly as a consequence of increased mobility. From 1971 the building up of sparsely populated areas also required planning considerations by the public sector. In this way the planning monopoly had been expanded so that all development had to be tried and found suitable by the politically appointed bodies of the municipality. Development in sparsely populated areas is tried in a direct building permit application and a refused building permit may be appealed and the plaintiff can win an appeal case against the municipality.

The Planning and Building Act of 1987 is based on the same principles as the Building Act of 1947 with its later additions. However, it removed the compulsory state-level examination and formal establishment of municipal planning decisions. The state can only act against a municipal planning decision if the decision contravenes certain national interests defined in laws, if it jeopardises the interests of neighbouring municipalities or poses a danger to health and safety. The opportunity that was introduced in 1931 to establish plans against the will of the municipality was limited to plans that were needed to satisfy national interests or inter-municipal co-ordination. This way the Government was given the possibility to decide on the location of nuclear waste storage. Since the 1999 Environmental Code, this opportunity also covers traffic infrastructure installations and hydropower installations.

The municipalities were obliged to draw up a Municipal comprehensive plan (översiktsplan) that covered the entire municipal area. The statement by the county administrative board forms a compulsory planning document in the comprehensive plan. This deals primarily with the handling of national interests. In this way, the comprehensive plan becomes a kind of contract between the state and the municipality on the treatment of the national interests. The individual property owner gained economic security for the present use of land, including also the buildings on the property. The right of the land owner to get compensation when the present use of land was restricted or intruded upon was also strengthened.

The means that can be used in Sweden to prevent activities that are environmentally undesirable have successively been increased at the expense of municipal influence. At the same time the financial incentives to promote a desired development have been dismantled. An example of the way in which restrictive measures have gained a stronger position is the establishment of the Environmental Code in 1999. This has meant that a number of decisions on the localisation of activities that have environmental impacts have been transferred from the political sector to the legal sector. The fact that restrictive measures gained a stronger position is connected to a weakened confidence in political assessments. The same is true about the stronger position of the courts at the expense of the politically appointed bodies. The development towards market-based management means that private initiatives are gaining increased importance in new building developments. The municipalities no longer carry out an active land policy, which has been one of the most important prerequisites to steer building development throughout the 20th century. The development has also gone towards local opinion gaining increased importance. Legislation has successively strengthened the demands of information and consultation. A benevolent interpretation of this development is that the municipal hegemony over planning has been replaced by three other phenomena that are gaining in importance:

  1. Negotiations between equal partners that represent different forms of power - political, financial and professional.
  2. Legal trial and examinations in court of controversial planning decisions.
  3. An increased citizen influence, inter alia through a stronger media coverage.