During the 18th century many of Britain's towns underwent rapid expansion. Leading townspeople became increasingly conscious of the need to give their urban surroundings a better appearance. This was especially so in the case of towns which thrived on trade and tourism. Old congested lanes and alleys were pulled down to make way for wide new streets and fashionable open squares and spaces.
Before the mid-19th century the usual method of initiating improvement of this kind was for a town's corporation or its chief inhabitants to obtain a Private Act of Parliament. These Acts were specific to particular towns and vested new local bodies, made up of locally selected 'improvement commissioners', with powers to undertake particular projects.
Reconstruction and renewal
During the period 1700-1840 Parliament passed more than 600 Acts sanctioning local initiatives for improvement and reconstruction. The Acts varied enormously in scope, ranging from those dealing with small projects, such as the widening of a few central streets, to those that dealt with the complete redevelopment of large areas.
Many local Acts also established procedures for keeping the streets of individual towns tidy, clean and safe. They laid down specific regulations about such diverse matters as paving, policing, sedan chairs, hackney coaches, the naming of streets, house numbering, water supplies and sewers.
From 1835 Parliament began to widen the responsibilities of local government. Town corporations were given general powers to undertake improvement if they wished, without the need to seek authority from Parliament. But this did not apply in all matters, and town authorities continued to obtain Acts for specific local purposes.