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Thomas Sharp - town planner

Page updated 4th May 2011

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Although not a native of Exeter, Thomas Sharp has probably had a greater influence on Exeter in the 20th century, than any other person.

Sharp was born on 12th April 1901 at Bishop Auckland. He attended the local grammar school, leaving in 1918 to become a trainee surveyor for the local borough. He moved to Margate in 1922 to work on a development plan for the town, then moved on to Canterbury and London to work for a town planning consultant. He worked as a regional planning assistant for the south-west Lancashire advisory group, but in 1930, when the plan was rejected, he resigned, and did not work for two years.

Sharp published his first book, Town and Countryside in 1932, which gained him a reputation as an eloquent and controversial writer. In 1937 he became a lecturer at Durham University's architectural department, based at Newcastle. In 1940 be published a nine penny book, Town Planning which quickly sold a quarter of a million copies. From 1941 he was Senior Research Officer at the Ministry of Town and Country Planning. After the war, Thomas Sharp was president of the Town Planning Institute (1945-6), and worked taking commissions. He was awarded the CBE in 1951 and a FRIBA in 1961. Sharp married late in life in 1963, to Rachel Dorothy Morrison and lived in Oxford. He died in 1978 and was cremated in Oxford.

Sharp in Exeter

After the Exeter Blitz, had destroyed 37 acres of central Exeter, the City Council were confronted with the task of planning to re-build the city, after the war. In January 1944, the City Council created the Re-planning and Reconstruction Committee after a visit by W Morrison, the Minister of Town and Country Planning. Morrison had encouraged the council to appoint a planning consultant to advise on the rebuilding of the city. AFter considering a shortlist of candidates, the Town Planner, Thomas Sharp was appointed on the 26th October 1944, having already started work on a plan for Durham. His remit was to draw up an outline plan for the rebuilding of the city.

Initially, the Council had given Sharp twelve months to formulate a plan for the city, but the council asked him to submit his ideas in March 1945. His remit was "the historical and architectural character of the city, the reconstruction of built-up areas and particularly areas which have been devastated by enemy action, and the allocation of undeveloped land to its best use" (Exeter Phoenix 1946). A final plan was submitted in the May and was prepared for a public exhibition in December 1945 – a model of Exeter was exhibited in the shell of the City Library. The exhibition was opened by Lewis Silkin, Minister of Town and Country Planning, and ran for two weeks, attracting 28,035 visitors between 29 December and 19 January 1946. A book, Exeter Phoenix with numerous colour maps and plans was published in March 1946.

A modified version of Sharp's plan was adopted in September 1947, subject to various Central Government requirements, such as carrying out a road census before the final road layout was adopted. Some of Sharp's ideas for Exeter were controversial and many were dropped by the city planners. Traders wanted to rebuild as quickly as possible, and the Council were concerned about rateable value. A lack of money and materials also led to many compromises. The northern by-pass along the Longbrook Valley and down Exe Street to the river would have been expensive and destructive, although the present Western Way can't be said to have been a benign addition to the city. Neither Sharp, nor the City Council realised that their vision of bringing cars to the centre with strategically placed car parks, would strangle the city. Princesshay is the feature most associated with Sharp, but even that was a compromise, and ended up being meaner in actuality than his plan envisioned. Many ancient buildings that Sharp recommended could be saved were deliberately demolished at the instigation of the Town Clerk, C J Newman.

Other cities that had plans drawn up for them by Sharp include Salisbury, Durham, Chichester, and Taunton.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Exeter Phoenix (1946)

Thomas Sharp
Thomas Sharp

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