Jaywick in Essex has been in the news recently with the by-election in Clacton on Thursday. It began as a 1920s plotland development, and as recently as 1984 its huts and chalets were being held up as a “charming example of English vernacular makeshift architecture”. But now it’s the poster-child for anti-plotlanders and a handy source of filler stories for the Daily Mail on a slow news day as England’s “most deprived neighbourhood”. So how did it get to this?
Jaywick Sands was started as a new development by the sea front by Frank Stedman in 1928, with freehold plots of land sold off one by one to Londoners and Essex residents looking for holiday homes to use at weekends or in the summer. They plotlanders mostly put up wooden chalets and huts, often built by the families themselves. Looking at the early photographs it was quite dense from the start, compared to more spread out sites like the Humberston Fitties.
Before the war there was some hostility to the site from Clacton Council, and development of new plotland buildings across the country was largely halted by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Along with other east coast sites, it received another blow from the North Sea flood of 1953 when 37 of the total UK death toll of 307 were in Jaywick.
During the 1950s and 1960s the Jaywick Ratepayers’ Association campaigned for Clacton Council to provide road maintenance and the water and sewerage services that other parts of the borough received in return for their rates. In tandem, Stedman’s original Jaywick Freeholders’ Association lobbied for better flood defences. During this period the demographics shifted from holiday and weekend occupation to residential use, with an increasing number of people retiring to Jaywick as a seaside area they had visited during their working life.
At the start of 1971, the council decided to eliminate the Brooklands and Grasslands areas of chalet development in Jaywick using its compulsory purchase powers. In the end, this move was blocked by an appeal to the Department of the Environment, whose inspector criticised the council’s failure to provide basic services. In 1975, a sympathetic councillor felt that the “Council were still sulking over the inquiry decision and don’t want to know about Jaywick”.
In their 1984 book “Arcadia for all”, Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy summarised outsiders views of the area:
Jaywick especially has been seized upon by architectural writers to illustrate, not the horrors of uncontrolled development, but the charm of an indigenous vernacular of makeshift design. Thus for the teachers of architecture at Oxford Polytechnic, it is an example of ‘structuring one’s own environment in defiance of external authority’ and for the architectural critic Sutherland Lyall, it represents ‘not shanty town jerry building but an indigenous British paradigm of the way twentieth-century “bricoleurs” respond directly to their exigent circumstances.’
So how did it become “Misery by the Sea” as the Daily Mail puts it?
The council played its part. The continuing hostility from the council placed the area under Article 4 directives requiring full planning permission for even minor alterations and improvements or even garden sheds. Rebuilding was prevented when decaying chalets were pulled down, or if one burnt down. The council appears to have objected to the idea of buildings that weren’t “proper” houses, but simultaneously dragged its heels over providing the proper roads and services that go with “proper” housing streets. Deliberately blighting an area has consequences for the future.
The economy had a role too. The wider recession in the early 1980s hit Jaywick particularly hard. Well in to the 1970s, Jaywick had been a seaside destination for day trips and holidays, with fairground rides and seafront shops and stalls. These businesses gradually ran down, and in 1983 the Butlin’s holiday camp, which had been a significant local employer, finally closed.
By the 1990s, Jaywick had a bad reputation. It had become the kind of place local taxi drivers were reluctant to take fares to, and people with Jaywick addresses didn’t get short-listed when going for jobs.
Gradually the freehold owners of the chalet plots sold up, or they or their families just abandoned the plots and forgot about them. Over time, more and more chalets fell into the hands of a small number of absentee landlords who let them out on short tenancies to people who could claim housing benefit and who came in from other areas. In 2011, the Guardian reported landlords were able to get £450 per month even for chalets in very poor condition.
How could this have been avoided? Many areas of conventional housing in cities arrive at the same situation, and this downward spiral can be hard or impossible to prevent. But it strikes me that when Jaywick was thriving, the people who visited or lived there owned their own chalets and plots, and had the freedom to improve them. As more control was exerted from outside, the worse the situation got. Treating people like children doesn’t lead to a thriving community. You want people to take pride in their neighbourhood, and the way to do that is let them have a sense of ownership. Part of that is having the ability to make choices to shape their environment. Living at the mercy of a “We Know Best” state bureaucracy or beholden to a slum landlord doesn’t do that.
Here is an aerial view of Jaywick’s Grasslands and Brooklands areas. (The full Google Maps version has Streetview pictures of all the roads so you can explore from eye level too):
In 2012 Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope made a documentary, Jaywick Escapes, about the area which shows many of its problems and the community spirit which prevents some of the solutions (like mass demolition) proposed by the council over the years.
Postscript (23 October 2014): I had a chance to visit Jaywick after the by-election. There are some homes which are well looked after but the area, especially Brooklands, is genuinely run down and the Daily Mail pictures aren’t misleading. I saw some houses being rebuilt and it looks as if the process of cladding wooden chalets in pebble dash and replacing wood with concrete blocks and tiles is still ongoing. Here are a couple of pictures of houses that still betray their chalet origins: