Land Reform vs Planning vs Hutting

There’s been a lot in the news recently about Land Reform in Scotland, and many people involved in the hutting movement have been supporting this and connecting the two issues. In particular Donald McPhillimy wrote a blog post imagining sitting in a hut and reflecting on the impact of different types of landlord. It’s good that freehold land ownership has now come to the fore as it didn’t feel that was a particularly favoured model at the Hutter’s Rally last year. However, I think the real impediment is still planning law and practice, although at least in Scotland the planning policy recognises huts and requires councils to include them in their strategy “where appropriate”. Last year I roughed out some numbers about how to create a Carbeth style site, and I think they bear repeating in this context.

The Carbeth site is about 100 acres with about 140 huts, giving a density of about two thirds of an acre per hut. The actual plots assigned to each hut are smaller than this but the plots themselves are also well spaced which gives the site its semi-wooded character.

What are the costs involved if you wanted to create such a site from farmland? The Carbeth Hutters had to raise £1.75 million to the freehold of the site, but that was for land with planning permission for all those huts remember.

It’s easy to find agricultural land for sale online these days. For example, uklandandfarms.co.uk : scotland (change the sorting to “Low to High”) has bits of woodland and pasture starting for a few tens of thousands of pounds. Using one of these websites last year I found this field very near Carbeth, and so in the kind of location where we know a hutting community can thrive. That was 76 acres for about £125,000, which is a lot less than well over a million.

Let’s say we had created a hutters’ co-operative to buy that land, and then marked out 100 plots on it, to give a rather low density very like Carbeth with lots of space between plots. Everyone who became a member of the co-operative would get a plot. Half the available memberships would require a contribution of £125 per year over ten years; the other half require a one-off contribution of £2500 at the start. This means there would not even be a need for the co-op to take out a loan itself as the upfront payments would pay for the land purchase.

Add some rules to stop people reselling memberships in a way that drives up prices. Also some kind of common fund contribution: maybe £125/year, which the £2500 people don’t have to pay for the first ten years. This way after ten years everyone has paid the same in total, and there aren’t two classes of members. Some of the capital is used to put up huts owned by the co-operative available for £10/night to make the experience accessible and also so people can see if they really like it.

People would need to put up huts on their plots, but they could camp to start with while they did that. You can get log cabin kits for £2000-£4000 if people didn’t want to bodge together something themselves. But the co-op buying timber and fittings in bulk and then selling them at cost to members on site would be a great way of spreading the cost and letting people feel their way through the process of putting a hut up by trial and error.

We could do all that tomorrow in as many fields as there is the demand for huts if the planning environment was right.

In my view reform of property ownership is a worthy goal in itself. The option to buy rural land by local communities when it comes up for sale extended to tenant farmers would be a good thing, and not just in Scotland. The right of long-standing urban tenants to buy their own homes is also a worthy goal, as it is not good for people to be renting for any length of time and not getting equity in return: they’re just paying off someone else’s mortgage in most cases, whether the landlord is a private or public body, and they risk paying far more than the cost of the property if their family stays for decades. Long term renting is a con, rather like Currys selling maintenance contracts for £10 toasters.

But as I think the above links and example plan shows, all those issues about land and property reform don’t need to be resolved to restart hutting. Probably to do as much hutting as there is demand for it. It’s the planning environment which stops us doing it all over the place tomorrow.

The Haven and Dunton plotlands

The HavenLast autumn I was able to visit the Langdon Nature Reserve near Basildon in Essex, and took the collection of photos at the end of this post. The site was a plotlands community of chalets on plots of land owned by “residents” and “weekenders”. Originally it was largely occupied by weekenders who had bought their plots as places to escape to from London on days off work, and often built their chalets and huts themselves. Gradually the fraction of residents increased, helped along by wartime bombing of London homes and people retiring to their holiday chalets.

However in 1948 local and national government decided to develop Basildon as a New Town, with “proper” houses owned by branches of the State rather than the people who lived in them. All the plotlands were designated for compulsory purchase, and Langdon was no exception. But in Langdon’s case the plotland community wasn’t destined to be levelled to make way for the next generation of people escaping London (into the Basildon Development Corporation’s houses) but to become the artificial nature reserve it now is. The site hasn’t been returned to its state before the plots were sold before the First World War: it had been grazing land for centuries, possibly thousands of years. Instead it has become fenced-off scrubland dotted with trees and bushes that can only persist in this form in the absence of wild grazing animals (that our ancestors killed off or domesticated.)

In this nature reserve the authorities allowed one plotland property to survive, and the one chosen was the “Haven”, and it was turned into a museum.

Despite its origins, the Haven museum of plot land life is excellent. It is not the equivalent of a stuffed buffalo kept in an American shopping mall with a sign saying: “Look at what we exterminated to bring you all this!” The worst that can be said is that it has an exterior that looks like a conventional brick building, and so by itself it can’t represent the variety and individuality of the plotlands. As Deanna Walker says “it is quite posh compared to our little wooden chalets!”

The nature reserve and its volunteers have done a sterling job with it though. It has been faithfully populated with 1940s furnishings and goods, right down to a  kitchen cupboard full of tins and boxes in 1940s packaging.

Kitchen cupboard in The HavenIt’s a small building but it’s not claustrophobic and the space works well. Maybe I would feel differently if I’d been cooped up in it for most of a rainy August? But there’s no attempt to hide the fact that it feels comfortable, and desirable, and above all viable, especially for weekenders and resourceful residents.

Walking from room to room reminded me of Mr Foster’s house in the BBC “Plotlands” TV series from the 1996 which was clearly based on the site, with its fictional name of “Langton Fields”.

In the back garden are outbuildings, including a wartime air raid shelter, and a workshop for fixing bikes and other plotlanders’ household machinery, and a hen house for eggs – illustrating the self-sufficiency the plotlanders often strove for, both out of necessity on a site with poor roads, and in following the unconventional spirit which brought them there in the first place.

That grid layout of poor roads has now become gravel paths tended by the nature reserve and you can still follow them up the hillside and along the ridges, picking off the locations of individual properties. The leaflet and sign boards that are thoughtfully provided help with this, as would Deanne Walker and Peter Jacksons’ books which are available from the gift shop. Despite the encroaching trees, the more elevated trackways still have some dramatic views across towards London, with the Olympic park in the foreground.

HawthornAt first I dutifully ticked properties off the map, then visited the Haven, and then got near the top of the hill and stood in the brick foundations of “Hawthorn’s” bay window. This looks down over a large glade amongst the trees and bushes, almost like a lawn. I tried to imagine what the land must have been like as chalets on their plots.

Then I suddenly realised that I didn’t need to imagine. It would have looked very like Carbeth does now, just with straighter lanes and perhaps less trees. Furthermore I realised that’s what it would look like now if the plotlanders had just been allowed to keep their plots and their community.

And then I just felt angry at such vandalism by the State.

Two books about Basildon plotlands

Books about the plotlandsDeanne Walker has written two books about Essex plotland communities, first “Basildon Plotlands: The Londoners’ Rural Retreat” by herself and then “A Portrait of Basildon Plotlands: The Enduring Spirit” with Peter Jackson (who maintains a plotlands website.) The books are complementary pictures of plotland experiences and history and so I’m going to post about them together.

“Basildon Plotlands” is based on her own childhood experiences of her parents’ chalet in the 1960s to 1980s, and is primarily concerned with the “weekenders” who used huts as holiday homes in the countryside. “A Portrait” has more emphasis on the other group, the “residents”, who lived in their huts full time.

This division is still reflected in plotland communities that have survived into the 21st century such as Carbeth and the Humberston Fitties (where year-round occupation is the subject of a legal dispute with the council.) One of the strengths of the plotlands before the 1948 planning laws was the way in which boundaries between leisure and residential dwellings could be blurred to respond to the changing needs and wants of their owners.

“A Portrait” devotes a chapter to the plotlanders’ experiences during the Second World War when this flexibility allowed families to partially move out of their East End homes and occupy their huts to avoiding the bombing. For example by the mother and children moving permanently and the father joining them at weekends.

For some families the move became permanent if their home in London was bombed and when the housing shortage of wartime and its aftermath made their place in the country the most attractive option.

Both books describe some people’s transition from weekenders to residents when they retired, with familiarity of their chalet being more attractive (and cheaper) than a flat in the city. Again this is a testament to the flexibility of this kind of housing.

One of the important features of the plotlands was the ownership of their own plot of land by the individual chalet owners. This led to some very long periods of occupation, far longer than you might expect for a static caravan pitch for example. Many of the plots had stayed within generations of the same family since they were originally bought before the First World War. As “A Portrait” shows, this often led to groups of families being plotland neighbours for generations, even if only at weekends in many cases. The books’ co-author, Peter Jackson, is a graphic demonstration of this, as the son of parents who met as children on neighbouring plots.

Furthermore, the plotlands developed a strong community spirit including improvised entertainments, rudimentary services like water standpipes, and a supply of groceries by delivery boys (like Peter Jackson) who were willing to negotiate the unmade roads in all weathers. I’d not realised that the near universal practice of giving names to plotland chalets was needed to be able to receive the post in areas without properly laid out and numbered streets. This practice does seem to occur even in modern locations like the Humberston Fitties where the chalets are also officially numbered, so I suspect both the desire to name your property and the practicalities of receiving the mail are aligned.

The presence of residents helped sustain all this for both themselves and the weekenders, and they also appear to have significantly contributed to the security of the plotlands by their presence. As the efforts of the Basildon Development Corporation to destroy the plotlands came to their ultimate fruition in the 1980s, the last few owners experienced vandalism and break-ins at a level they were unprepared for.

“A Portrait” describes this process in its later chapters, although with less of the attention to the administrative and ideological background dissected in “Arcadia for all” by Hardy and Ward. One of the most chilling passages is a comment by the Labour minister for housing who revealed the government’s animosity to the mostly working class East Enders who had the audacity to own their own land. If the State decided they would be permitted to continue to occupy their plots after compulsory purchase, they would nevertheless be denied ownership on principle: “Freeholds should be in the hands of the community and transfer of land should be leasehold only.” As Walker and Jackson say “For the residents who had probably previously rented rooms or houses in London … and might therefore have been the first in their family to own their own piece of land, this edict from above constituted an intolerable outrage.”

Deanne Walker’s first book, “Basildon Plotlands”, touched on elements of this controversy, but also has more material about the weekenders that her own family represented. She begins with a vivid description of travelling out from London on a Friday night, opening up their chalet in the dark, settling in, and then waking up in the countryside with all the possibilities of a weekend stretching out before them.

It is the more personal of the two books, although both of them are well illustrated by photographs taken by the authors’ own families and friends. It also covers the practicalities in more detail, including experiences of constructing the chalets with “real DIY” (in a way which would have made Jonathan Meades proud.)

In my next blog post I will write about a visiting the preserved Haven Plotlands Museum in the one chalet the Basildon Development Corporation decided to keep as a historical record of what they had destroyed. But I’m going to end here with a comparison of the kinds of kits plotlanders were buying and building in the 1930s and today’s equivalent. The picture on the left is from Albert’s catalogue of chalet kits and one of the options was used to build the chalet “Eleanor” on the Berry Park Estate. On the right is a Lugarde log cabin you could buy today.

Lugarde log cabin

A page from "Albert's" catalogue of building kits from the 1930s. One of these kits was used to the build the plotland chalet "Eleanor" on the Berry Park Estate, Essex.