“Arcadia for all” by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward

ArcadiaForAllHardy and Ward’s “Arcadia for all” is probably the most detailed account of 20th century plotland developments in Britain – a landscape divided up into small plots of land, on which their owners built makeshift huts, cabins, shanties, and chalets as weekend and holiday retreats in the countryside. Written in 1984, the authors were able to interview current and former plotlanders who remembered the peak of the movement in the 1920s and 1930s. The focus is very much on the areas around London, but the wider context of changes to planning law and similar developments in other countries are also surveyed. The book ends with a call for some freedom to begin it again, which echoes today’s movements like the campaign for Scottish hutting and even the sale of woodplots.

One of the authors, Colin Ward, was a leading British anarchist who viewed anarchism in a very pragmatic way as something that is always present at the grassroots level of people making their lives better and organising themselves into mutual agreements, associations, and institutions:

Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejecting of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.

He saw these self-organising instincts as being frequently suppressed by the socialist or capitalist state, but always ready to flourish when chances appear, “like a seed beneath the snow”, and like his other books “Arcadia” documents instances of this struggle between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual.

Near the start of the book, it discusses nineteenth century forerunners of plotland settlements, including those near Nottingham in the 1830s described by William Howitt:

There are on the outskirts of Nottingham upwards of 5000 gardens, the bulk of which are occupied by the working class … Every garden has a summer-house and these are of all scales and grades, from the erection of a few tub staves, with an attempt to train a pumpkin or a wild-hop over it, to substantial brick houses with glass windows, good cellars for a deposit of choice wines, a kitchen and all necessary apparatus, and a good pump to supply them with water. Many are very picturesque rustic huts, built with great taste, and hidden by tall hedges in a perfect little paradise of lawn and shrubbery – most delightful spots to go and read in with a pleasant party of friends.

Mid-twentieth century planning laws have made plotland development illegal, but in the decades before the Second World War they spread across England, as catalogued in a two-page survey in the first chapter. They existed on the banks of the Rivers Thames and Lea near London; in North Downs woodlands; on the Chilterns; in Marple and Mottram on the edges of the Pennines near Manchester; on the banks of the River Severn in Shropshire and Worcestershire; by the River Dee in Cheshire; by the River Wye on the Welsh border; on the shores of lakes in Cheshire and Rudyard Reservoir in Staffordshire; in Charnwood Forest in the East Midlands; in Hardwick Wood and Sutton Spring Wood near Chesterfield; in Holmhouse Wood near Middlesbrough; on the Lancashire coast near Cockersand Abbey; in former fisherman’s huts along Dungeness in Kent; on coasts in the South West at Severn Beach, Redcliffe Bay, Croyde, Hayle Towan, Whitsand Bay, Exmouth, and Beer; on the South Coast at Shoreham Beach, Peacehaven, Camber Sands; on the East Coast at Flamborough Head, much of the Lincolnshire and Norfolk coasts, Jaywick and Canvey Island; at Cranmore on the Isle of Wight; at St Leonards in Dorset; at Laindon-Pitsea in South Essex.

(Similar settlement appeared in Scotland and Wales, but often without the security of land ownership or long leaseholds, and so developed and were largely extinguished in different ways to the plotlands documented in the book.)

In the years before and after the First World War some very large areas of plotland on the coasts were laid out with thousands of plots, which were usually sold by auction in a marquee on site during the summer months, with free or subsidised trains put on from London. These larger, planned plotland developments were intended to be occupied by conventional houses or hotels as part of new seaside resorts and had restrictions on the minimum value of house that could be built. But in practice they were bought for a few pounds by people without the means to spend hundreds on a house. Instead, they put up self-built huts or chalets or even adapted retired railway carriages and trucks, and used them as weekend and holiday retreats.

The book quotes a report by Lord Mayo, and Professors Adshead, and Abercrombie on the process by which land went from tents to huts by the Thames:

At first a simple hut is erected behind the tents for cooking and other purposes; the next stage is for the family to take its meals in the shed in wet weather; a dining room follows; possibly a bedroom is added for a maid or for someone who does not care to sleep under canvas; and so gradually is built up a rambling series of shacks.

The authors note that the assumption of having maids is probably inaccurate, and that part of the motivation of the plotlanders was to escape the social conformity of urban life. One of the individuals they interviewed plainly stated that “we wanted a place which was primitive, where the children could do what they liked. They could play pirates, build rafts, fall in the river and get covered in mud, and nobody minded.”

Because the land and buildings were owned outright rather than rented for a week or two in the summer, the same families occupied them for decades and built up lasting relationships with the surrounding owners, and eventually a sense of community. Often extended families would come down during the summer and camp out on floorspace, or in a tent or caravan. Family and friends might go on to buy nearby plots themselves if they came back onto the market. As the owners aged, some of the buildings became permanently occupied, either as cheap housing, or as a substitute for homes bombed during the War, or as homes to retire to.

However, major changes to the law on land use and land ownership were taking place. Already in the 1930s, there were objections to the plotlands from the new planning professionals and writers. The 1945 Labour government’s manifesto had promised to nationalise rural land, and their first step was the Town and Country Planning Acts in England and Wales and Scotland, which set out to give the state control of land through a national planning system administered by local councils, who also acquired the right to compulsorily purchase land to enforce their decisions about its purpose. Over time these powers were used to blight and destroy most of the existing plotlands, and prevent the creation of replacements.

One of the most striking examples is the once thriving settlement of Laindon near the modern town of Basildon in Essex. In the 1940s, the decision to create the new town was taken, and the opportunity was taken to gradual eradicate the plotlands. The plotlanders were notified that compulsory purchase would be used in the future. This blighted the area and caused people to sell up one by one or abandon their properties. Article 4 planning restrictions hastened this process by requiring owners to get full planning permission for even trivial alterations. By the 1980s it was all over, and all that is now left is one cottage, the Haven in Dunton, which has been retained as a museum of plotland life set in roads and plots that have now become a nature reserve rather than the streets and houses of the new town.

Colin Ward’s anarchist criticism of the state comes to the fore when discussing why all this happened, and how mass, planned housing has come to be viewed as the norm:

In practice of course it only became the norm for those ideologists … who confused society with the State, and assumed that the activities of central government were to be equated with socialism. The norm, statistically, is owner-occupation as we have mentioned, in this and in many other countries, East and West, and this is just as well, or the public cost of housing an inert community would absorb the whole national budget. It is only in the capitalist West that people who regard their views as progressive have ideological difficulties about owner-occupation. In the countries of Eastern Europe, by the simple device of regarding a home as ‘personal’ rather than ‘real’ property, they have avoided this sterile blind alley. Several of the communist countries have a higher proportion of owner-occupation than Britain.

Those words, written in 1984 when communist regimes in Eastern Europe still believed they would continue indefinitely, explain how so many Russian families had dachas in the countryside, but why families in Britain had been robbed of their former right to similar properties by Labour’s planning restrictions, which Conservative governments did nothing to reverse.

As well as Russian dachas, the book surveys other similar developments around the world, drawing parallels with what we used to have. The European chalet gardens are particularly interesting, as they sound so like the 1830s Nottingham allotments with buildings quoted earlier, and yet so dissimilar to modern allotments in the UK with their tiny tool sheds and lack of social use by families and friends.

The authors close with suggestions about the future, and how planning rules could be varied to protect some landscapes and city green belts still, but allow plotland style development in other areas. They suggest that building regulations are too all-or-nothing, and do not give scope for self-built housing to be gradually brought up to standard, or even not at all in the case of recreational homes. One of the grounds councils have used for refusing new plotlands and working to destroy existing ones is the cost of providing roads and services like sewers and running water. But this too is a result of overly uniform thinking: rough roadways of the type put in by farmers, water from a standpipe, and composting toilets are all the plotlanders wanted:

But the same difficulty, and the same absence of those services taken for granted in urban areas, is found everywhere in rural England. People who have always lived in sparsely populated districts accept this as the norm. People who move to such places must expect it. The plotland areas of other countries exhibit this assumption. In the Norwegian mountains, there is a hytta zone, where people build holiday huts or second homes, which for some become first homes because they have chosen a simple way of life. The normal urban services are neither provided nor expected.

Thirty years on from the book’s publication in 1984, the Scottish Hutting campaign’s recent success in having a hut definition included in the Scottish Planning Policy to accommodate low impact buildings may be a start, and Wales has a low impact development framework (One Planet) which is also moving in some of the same directions. The situation in England at a national level seems to be little improved though.

In parallel with this is the growth of woodlotting, in which larger woods are subdivided and sold for recreational use or ‘family forestry’, often including camping. Some of the impulse of this movement is shared with the plotlanders desire to own a part of the countryside to go to on weekends and holidays. With the largely forgotten history of plotlands now in mind, it seems natural to refer to these woodlands as ‘woodplots’. Some of these woodplots are even acquiring buildings via the forestry permitted development route, which is easier to access than for agricultural land.

The final chapter of “Arcadia for all” includes a comment from one of their interviews with a former senior planning officer which sums up a lot of my own feelings:

What is the point of outlawing people’s legitimate aspirations? In the absence of a proper oulet, this kind if development still happens, but is driven into the hands of the wrong people. We will be left with a situation where both buyers and sellers don’t give a damn for official attitudes, and until we have clear-cut policies so that people know what to expect and an approach that acknowledges the demand for a plotland way of life, we will go on having exploiters and exploited, and we will continue to bring the whole idea of planning into disrepute among enterprising people.

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