“Huts: a Place Beyond” by Lesley Riddoch

Lesley Riddoch has been a long standing supporter of the Thousand Huts campaign in Scotland, and an advocate for a resurgence of hutting. For the past decade she was working towards a PhD from the University of Strathclyde on hutting, and her new book, “Huts: a place beyond”, is her thesis reworked into a more popular format. I think the book will be a very helpful contribution to the movement, but there are some significant problems with it.

I’m going to get one out of the way at the start. Chapter 11 is “Plotlanders: The hutting anarchists”, and it is clearly based in part on my August 2014 review of “Arcadia for all” by Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward, but without any acknowledgement. For example, the final paragraph of Lesley Riddoch’s chapter says:

“Some plotlanders were able to upgrade their huts into permanent homes because they owned the land. But Ward observes that hutting settlements in Scotland lacked the security provided by land ownership or long leases and were easily ‘extinguished’ without a trace.”

This is the corresponding paragraph from my review, which was my own conclusion about freehold vs huts on short term leases like Carbeth in Scotland, and not an idea presented by Hardy and Ward. That’s why I put it in brackets.

“(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.)”

I’ve not been able to get a copy of Lesley Riddoch’s PhD thesis itself yet, despite polite requests.

Anyway, back to the book itself.

The overarching theme of the book is to establish equivalences between Scotland and Norway, and then draw conclusions from what is nevertheless different between the two countries. In particular, to understand why Norway has 500,000 huts and Scotland has only 600.

Geography and “wooded latitude” are part of these equivalences, with phrases like “Norwegians and just about every other nationality at our wooded latitude”. It must be pointed out though, that most of Norway (including all the places mentioned) are well north of John O’Groats.

Map © OpenStreetMap contributors

The book begins with an account of Lesley Riddoch’s visit to huts near Hammerfest in northern Norway (840 miles north of John O’Groats) but then quickly moves to her own hutting experience in a stone built cottage in Glen Buchat, 45 minutes west of Aberdeen in the 1980s. She does convey the satisfaction of doing things yourself rather than relying on the prepackaged experience of so much of modern, urban life, but it’s in her descriptions of Norwegian hyttes that the book will gather converts:

for most Norwegians, the hytte isn’t about splendid isolation at all. It’s about real connection with family and friends, putting physical distance between time off and the world of work and getting completely immersed in the landscape and nature that sits on your hutting doorstep.

A particular point of comparison is the island of Lindøya near Oslo versus Carbeth north of Glasgow. Both sites started in 1920s and evolved from tents to communities of several hundred wooden huts:

“Meanwhile, the type of accommodation used on Lindøya was becoming more permanent. A tent during dry, sunny weather might be pleasant enough, but an outsider brushing by in wet weather could soak everyone and everything inside. So, people started building lemmehytte (jointed cabins,–part tent, part hut–which hung together by means of hooks and were dismantled every autumn. The base was about 2.5 by 3.5 metres and the walls inside were papered with newspaper. Adding ‘rooms’ in adjoining tents, like kitchen and bedroom tents, extended these makeshift homes–astonishingly, the very same transformation was also underway in the 1920s, one thousand miles west at Carbeth.”

Carbeth is almost 300 miles south of Lindøya, and hundreds of miles further south a similar process was happening in the riverside and seaside plotlands in the South East of England, as described in a report quoted by Hardy and Ward (they were sceptical about the “maid” bit though):

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.

But despite these general and specific similarities, the Norwegian, Scottish, and English sites followed very different paths from about 1950. Lindøya has continued to mature and become more secure. The number of huts at Carbeth was about 250 in 1947 but down below 150 by 2013 when the hutters bought out their landlord, and the book catalogues the series of battles in the 1950s and 60s over basics like the supply of water. At the same time, plotlands in England were being extinguished by councils either by deliberate blight or compulsory purchase, as happened with Dunton in Essex, or by allowing plots to be “upgraded” into much more expensive conventional houses.

“The Haven” museum, the one remaining hut at Dunton in Essex.

What happened to change things in Britain but not in Norway? Lesley Riddoch’s conclusion is this:

“Indeed, growth in hutting on both sides of the North Sea maps the years of Labour’s primacy in each country with the creation of the welfare state, intervention to alleviate land shortages and the advent of universal suffrage. But progress faltered in Britain

This is part of the book’s general praise for what we might call the Socialist Model of Hutting and Plotlands: that they need to be enabled by State provision of land and above all rules, to make sites work correctly. There is rather disturbing approval of the rules-based roder system imposed on Lindøya by the Norwegian state, where plots are grouped together and neighbours take turns telling each other what to do :

“The roder system helps keep gentrification at bay – once every few years, even consultants and professors must take their turn as rodemester, collecting fees and organising hedge cutting, fire safety, beer nights and a team for mini-golf. Indeed in 2017, more than a hundred hutters went together to Malta for a holiday playing mini-golf in the sun

Contrast this with what we might call the Anarchist Model of Hutting and Plotlands advocated by Hardy and Ward (a major anarchist writer in Britain) in “Arcadia for all”, which is enabled by hutters owning the freehold rather than being beholden to the Committee etc. No compulsory mini-golf there.

But I think the real answer to what happened to start killing off hutting and plotlands is contained in that problematic 11th chapter of Lesley Riddoch’s book that I’ve already quoted from.

“One of the most influential developments for Scottish hutters in the 1920s was actually located in England. The ‘plotlands ’ – a large area of tiny sub-divided sites with self-built huts – grew up over a 70-year period in the south of England, starting with the agricultural depression of the 1870s and spreading slowly to a peak of activity in the 1920s and ’30s , before growth was brought to an abrupt halt by post-war planning regulation enacted by a Labour Government . Yes, you read that right – a Labour Government . The 1947 Town and Country Planning Act was the tin lid for the plucky plotlanders and many other ‘makeshift’ hutting communities. Was that an unfortunate by-product of well-intentioned planning legislation, or its primary purpose? It’s hard to say.”

Yes, a Labour government. And we do know the purpose of the system of control in the Town and Country Planning Act: the Act was the first step to Labour’s 1945 manifesto commitment to nationalise all land. Since this would be eye-wateringly expensive, the Act just sought to transfer the benefits of owning, rather than renting, land to the State. In particular, any increase in the value of land from development had to be paid to the State, and the freedom to develop land was removed by the new requirement for planning permission – just as a landlord might require tenants to get permission before many changes on a property. As with the mini-golf rule on Lindøya, the belief was that the Authorities Know Best, and that things and people must be planned and organised. And the Authorities, in the form of local councils from Angus (as noted in Lesley Riddoch’s book) to Essex, did not want more huts and suddenly had the power to stop them.

Contrast this with the Anarchist Model’s freedom of owner occupation which Western socialism has viewed with suspicion, as Hardy and Ward explain:

“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. … It is only in the capitalist West that people who regard their views as progressive have ideological difficulties about owner-occupation.” 

Why do Scotland (and England and Wales) have so few huts compared to Norway?

Let’s look at the timing again. As the book says, “hut numbers soared in Norway after WW2”, but halved in Scotland, and

“the big jump occurred when Norwegian workers were given a third week of paid holidays in the 1940s. This increased demand so much that in 1949 the Norwegian government had to ban hytte building because it was using up so many still scarce raw materials. Another boom coincided with the post-war de-rationing of cars in 1960. Car numbers increased 12-fold between 1949 and 1974 and many Norwegians used them to build and visit second homes causing hytte numbers to double.”

But these post-war increases were just not possible in Britain because of the changes to planning law in 1947. British hutting wasn’t allowed to benefit from the increased freedom to travel of wider car ownership and greater disposable income in the 1960s.

The changes also succeeded in blighting existing hut sites and plotlands. In Deanna Walker’s excellent book “Basildon Plotlands: the Londoners’ Rural Retreat”, she describes her own idyllic childhood weekends at her parents’ hut (with the freehold), but also how the site was gradually worn down by opposition from the local authorities, seeing older neighbours disappear one by one without the possibility to replace dilapidated huts:

“The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 prevented new developments, although it was difficult for local councils to remove those already in existence without coming to some sort of agreement with the owners. However, it did mean that there would be no new generations of Plotlanders once the existing plots went out of use. Although 1947 to some extent marked the end of the Plotland era, it didn’t mean that the plots disappeared overnight. Not all plots were sold back to the local councils and many people arranged private sales. This is how my family acquired their plots in the ’50s. However they were bucking a general trend and I was amazed to discover that, in the period 1958-64, 2,365 properties were demolished by the Basildon Development Corporation”

In these freehold plotlands in Essex, plots could lie abandoned for a long time, or be bought up by the council, with the site becoming less and less attractive, more overgrown and more vulnerable to the vandalism which eventually led Deanna Walker’s family to give up. On rented plots, it is also easy to see how a blighted hutting site with no possibility to grow the numbers or even replace huts would become less and less attractive to own. The total rent coming in would fall, but the patchwork of occupied and unoccupied plots would still prevent most other uses of the land. No wonder that landowners sought a way out. This is the pattern seen in Scottish hut sites, with the true damage of 1947 playing out in the subsequent decades.

Lesley Riddoch doesn’t identify this cause and instead blames land ownership itself and lack of availability of land for hutting. This is another red herring though. The rapid spread of hutting in Scotland before the war was on rented land, and after the war about 40% of the agricultural land in Scotland was in owner-occupied farms rather than locked up in large multigenerational estates which never sell land. Today, you can find properties of a hundred acres or so for sale on the open market (on sites like OnTheMarket even), and at prices not much more than £1/sq.m despite the boom in land prices this century. It would be perfectly possible for a group of would-be hutters, or an enterprising developer, to buy such a holding, split it into hut plots and sell or lease them off. For woodland this already happens: for significantly higher prices per acre, you can already buy a few acres of woodland on a “retail” basis from Woodlands.co.uk and Woods4sale.co.uk which buy bigger forests and split them up.

But the stumbling block was and is planning permission. That is why the hard work of the Thousand Huts campaign in lobbying the Scottish Government and local councils to get hutting recognised in the planning process is so important. But some councils are still pushing back, and there were decades of hostility to hutting before that. That is the real cause of the near death of hutting in Scotland, and of plotlands in general in Britain.

There’s another major difference between hutting in Scotland and Norway which the book does acknowledge, and frankly, undermines any attempt to establish an equivalence between hutting in the two countries.

“62 per cent of Norwegian hytte are still located individually and 38 per cent sit in clusters of ten or more huts. So that’s another important difference between the North Sea cousins. In Norway, hytte are mostly scattered across woods, fjords, forests and lochs on private plots bought from local farmers–not located in camps or communities. In Scotland, just 3.8 per cent of huts are found on individual plots, while 87 per cent are located on sites of ten or more. So basically Scottish hutters get a plot on a fairly regulated site while Norwegian hytte owners get a walk on the wild side.”

So I think it would be helpful to distinguish between those plotland sites with tens or hundreds of huts, like Lindøya, Carbeth, and places like Dunton in Essex and the Humberston Fitties in Lincolnshire; and what we might call cabins-in-the-woods which are isolated, or at least on plots measured in acres rather than square metres.

As those numbers show, hyttes of Norway are mostly in the isolated form, as are the woodland and lakeside log cabins common in North America. Thoreau’s cabin in the woods by Walden Pond is an archetype for this form: a place where someone from a town went, temporarily, to experience nature, isolation, and retreat to with friends and family.

A reconstruction of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin by Walden Pond in Massachusetts.

As the book acknowledges, the Lindøya site is a bit of “red herring” as far as Norwegian hyttes go: they’re mostly isolated cabins-in-the-woods. Furthermore those figures show that in Scotland it was almost exclusively multiple-hut plotlands like Carbeth, and so experiences elsewhere (like Norway) of mass ownership of isolated huts are also red herrings for Scotland.

The useful parallels are really within Britain. The bulk of huts were on plotland sites, running from the central belt of Scotland all the way down to the south coast of England. Even the building styles are common across Britain. Compare these huts in Scotland (top four) with huts in England (bottom four.)

And if you think planning permission was hard for plotlands after the war, it would be much worse for isolated huts in the upland forested environments that tended to become national parks in Britain. Remember that British national parks are not about land ownership or access rights as in North America. Their primary purpose is to “preserve”, which in practice means stopping development by landowners by taking the role of planning authority away from local councils (which might be influenced by voters!) and giving it to a National Park Authority, where the interests of infrequent visitors from towns and cities who want “preservation” can be paramount.

I want to end with some of the strengths of Lesley Riddoch’s book, in addition to the warm and personal accounts of how hytte owners use their huts as shared family retreats.

The first is the identification of the importance of the Norwegian separation of the markets for first and second homes:

“it’s unhelpful to have precious first homes taken from the rural housing stock to sit half-empty and under-occupied . But designating family homes as ‘ first homes ’ in perpetuity – as they do in Norway – could help stop that practice . In Norway boplikt (the duty of place) has been in operation for 70 years, placing burdens in title deeds that mean first homes can only be sold to other permanent residents and second homes must be bought by other second homers which has effectively created two separate housing markets and stopped locals from being trumped by wealthier incoming holiday homers .”

As well as dealing with the problem of local people being unable to find a house (which is itself partly caused by the rationing of planning permission), such a national system could reassure councils that hutting sites won’t become shanty towns. Some councils do already impose conditions on planning approvals for new houses to prevent them being used as holiday homes, but recognition in primary legislation would be harder to challenge.

There is a detailed examination of how Carbeth came about, including an interview with the son of William Ferris, who persuaded the land owner to rent out plots at Carbeth and did a lot more to promote the outdoors. This interview was the result of work with a telephone directory contacting people called “Ferris” – a benefit of Lesley Riddoch’s journalistic background.

The book also makes a parallel with the evolution of allotments, which in many European countries allow quite substantial huts which can sometimes be used as accommodation – although on some sites that is also a subject of controversy and leads to overnight stays on the quiet. My photo here shows some of these chalets in Geneva.

There’s also a description of hutting sites around Scotland, with potted histories of their respective fates, including some truly tragic stories of how hutting communities were destroyed. My personal omission aside, the book is also well referenced, as one would expect from its PhD thesis origins, which allows you to follow up specific topics in more detail elsewhere.

Overall, I don’t think the shortcomings in the analysis will distract new people who might be converted to the idea of hutting by the book. My only worry is that it will draw attention away from further planning reform and direct it towards land ownership. Breaking up the 50% or so of Scottish land in big estates won’t help, when there is already plenty of land available on the open market.

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