The Humberston Fitties are a colony of about 300 chalets, huts, and cabins on former salt marshes (“fitties”) on the Lincolnshire coast near Cleethorpes. The site began after the First World War and the freehold was acquired by the local council in 1938, with the chalet owners holding leases on their plots. North East Lincolnshire Council (NELC) has attempted to retain the character of the site using a mixture of planning control and conditions in the leases. There are currently two disputes between the chalet owners and the council: about the rule that they cannot sleep in the chalets in January and February; and the council’s plans to lease the site to the adjacent (massive) static caravan park run by Haven. At the end of this post is a gallery of 80 photos I’ve taken while walking around the site.
The site has made up tarmac roads, mains water, sewerage, electricity, and BT phone lines. There’s no gas supply but many residents use bottled gas, and a lot of the wooden chalets have external brick chimney stacks originally built for wood or coal fires and stoves, as you can see in the above photo. That chalet also has the distinctive “broken ridge” roof style, that usually comes from building a gabled roof, then adding a verandah with a shallower roof pitch, and then enclosing the verandah to add more space. Site rules can mean that this profile may survive major repairs or even a rebuild of the original wooden walls.
There does seem to be a community feel at the Fitties, with people talking over fences and charity fund raising events being organised and advertised in people’s windows. And then there’s the political activism due to the council’s behaviour.
There are two broad classes of plotlands development: freehold, of the type seen in the areas like Dunton in Essex, in which people buy their plot as well as the building they have on it; and leasehold, where they only rent the plot for a few years (or even months) at a time. The Fitties fall into the leasehold category and this has allowed the council to put stringent rules in place to keep a vaguely pre-war character to the site. Their Design Guide for instance puts “individuality” as a requirement, which is not the kind of thing you normally see councils enforcing. The length of lease allowed depends on the score of the building against the criteria in the guide, varying from 1 to 15 years.
The council also uses planning law to enforce their design rules and to exert control, and has declared the site to be a Conservation Area and put in place an Article 4(2) directive which restricts the permitted development rights that residential property normally has. So you can find yourself needing planning permission to put up small garden sheds etc, or to build porches or extensions which would normally be below the threshold for a planning permission application.
I think it’s particularly ironic that the council is trying to keep the Fitties almost frozen in time because it’s something worth having, but at the same time would crush any attempt to build a similar site elsewhere. This is the mentality of the museum rather than the way to have more of the real magic here that people value. The magic you can feel just walking round the place comes from that individuality and freedom that the original plotlanders created and then bequeathed to the current chalet owners. It’s not something you can create and nurture with regulations. It happens despite government and in defiance of attempts at creating manufactured, controlled environments.
The most controversial aspect of the council’s rules seems to be the enforced closed season during January and February when owners are not allowed in their own chalets between 4pm and 10am. Supposedly this is because of the risk of flooding but that’s transparent dishonesty by the council as winter flooding could happen in November and December too. One group of owners are actively campaigning to have this enforced absence limited to two weeks a year: the “50 weeks” a year campaign that has posters in some of the chalets’ windows.
Chris Shaw, the Labour council leader, has made multiple threats in his attempts to enforce the council’s chosen rules. He has threatened turning off electricity and mains water to the site during the closed season to discourage overnight stays; and he has deployed “security” guard patrols to try to catch people on site and promised to evict anyone caught during the nights of the forbidden months. This is “the State knows best” variant of socialism which Colin Ward argued against in “Arcadia for All” from a pragmatic anarchist perspective: the danger that government will decide what is best for people and then use the great power it has to enforce those decisions about people’s lives, crushing opposition by whatever means are available (control of electricity supply, deploying security patrols, etc.)
Bizarrely, the other dispute is the council’s proposal to sell or lease the site to a commercial owner. Haven Holidays, which owns the adjacent Thorpe Park static caravan site, seems to be their preferred option. Many chalet owners are naturally concerned about this, as the Fitties forms a strip between Thorpe Park and the beaches, and Haven’s business is putting static caravans on land they acquire, not being landlord to a few hundred individualists living in a unique community.
I did drive and walk around Thorpe Park during my visit. The caravans do look comfortable, the site is carefully landscaped and provided with lakes, trees, and activities, and it’s all a very “turn key” experience with things taken care of so you don’t need to worry about sorting it all out. But the rows of caravans were a soulless, regimented place compared to the Fitties. It would be a tragedy if a commercial owner was given the chance to spend 20 years running the Fitties down, driving out chalet owners, and then being able to convince a sympathetic council that the Fitties’ time had passed and it was necessary to clear away the mess and put in yet more rows and rows of identical, factory-built static caravans.
The next stage of this process is due to be formally discussed by the council later on October 13th (agenda and council leader’s report for the meeting). To me, a Carbeth style buyout of the freehold by an association run by the chalet owners would seem the safest option. People coming together to mutually help themselves, free of interference by (local) government puts the control in their own hands. Direct freehold ownership by individuals might be another option, but raising the money for that isn’t practical for everyone. Either way, we’d still have planning control to safeguard the needs of the wider community, rather than just enforce the council’s preferences.
The Fitties occupy the long strip of land with roads just to the west of the sea in this Google aerial view. Google Streetview is available for most of the roads, so you can wander around the site at ground level yourself too: