Plotlands- learning from history

and the present housing crisis.

Housing crisis? Some would say that the UK has a housing shortage, less of a crisis but more a supply problem. Yet for many housing is at crisis point and something Shelter [the housing pressure group charity] and others have reported to government. Rents in areas where there is work are bordering on extortion [ a £2500 monthly rent for a 2 bed in Brixton, London, is normal] and with current average prices for buying a home around  £165,000 to £247,000 depending on which government agency is used affordable accommodation is at crisis.

A 40 or 50 or 60 something, homeowners may be the lucky ones who is able to sell up in one area and either upsize or downsize in another area but for those who are renting the choices are getting restricted year on year. The average wage is around £25,000 although there are plenty of people on half that- given that a 90% loan is 3 to 3.5 annual income for single people and 2.5 for couples the house price limit is £36-40 thousand for a below averaged waged single person, £78,000 for the averaged waged single person [or below average wage couple] and £120,000 for a working average couple. Many couples have children, not all, some I believe are same sex! or don’t want children! And children tend to mess up pre child arrangements. Add to this is that about a third of wages is spent on housing which has progressively got worse over the decades: after the WW2 around 20% or less went on the mortgage.

One of the basics of life is now a form of servitude in the UK.

Government is urged to build more social housing and urged to allow more private housing estates on greenbelt land. Yet for the last few decades the problem has been left to the free market which has restricted supply and pushed house prices and rents beyond many people’s income. Local authorities are financially restricted to raise the capital,  to build the houses, to rent out to those in need and with the ‘right to buy’ the best social housing has been sold off [at a reduced rate]. Developers wishing to build new housing estates on greenbelt land are met with local objection.

Developers are also looking to make a profit, hence the reason for anonymous – homogeneous – rabbit hutch estates, where a three bedroomed detached house is squeezed into the smallest space. As much as many of us with a hint of architectural sense may loathe the ‘Barrett Home’ many aspire to live on an out of town modern estate. And, all the time towns and cities a sprawling into the remnants of the countryside.

The solutions are all problematic: we want open spaces and countryside, and unlike many Europeans we don’t like apartments [unless they are in a particularly groovy part of a city overlooking some lake or docklands] but aspire to a little garden and three bedrooms in which the smallest would present problems swinging a cat. Smaller communities object to large estates popping up next to them and even ignoring the NIMBYS fear of their own houses losing a view and more importantly value, these communities have lost their local schools and economic infrastructure leading to new developments being dormitory.

One of the single biggest hurdles is obtaining land to build on- developers will sit on land until house prices have risen so as to make a profit, an issue that is currently being tackled by government but this is not the root of the problem.

Land values have sky rocketed- my own land is worth 20 times its purchase price in 20 years. Local upland which is fairly marginal sells for around £7,000 an acre- productive agricultural lowland is around £10,000 and more depending on location. For the average farmer the return on investment at that price is marginal- at best it is a tax loss and safer than the bank. With planning permission that £10 k an acre land is worth £800k or a million or more: a small plot with planning permission is a bargain at £70,000 although you would not get a mortgage for it. Just 3 or so companies offer mortgages for the self builder often requiring the land to be owned in the first place. With this is the simple lack of building plots most building land is packaged up into several acre plots which in turn is wrapped up into the complex world of local authority planning that secretly decides which areas will be open for development and which will remain greenbelt.

Building homes is not the expensive part, it can be but it can cost a few £1000 to connect electricity, water, and sewage. More remote locations with fewer or one dwelling cost more – up to £20,000 for water and electric and less with off the grid services or if there are several homes [customers]. My 100sqm cabin cost £2000 in materials and a further £1000 for the off the grid electric, but I do have a natural spring and space for a bio loo and reed water processing. Realistically £50,000 would build a fabulous  small home [visit tinyhouseblog for great ideas]. Across the spectrum there are options- in the 80s people bought old buses and took to the road and for a short while actually had a little control over their lives, for the conventional it is possible to build a family home for around £80,000 with most of work carried out by contractors.

The issue is planning and land.

The 1947 planning act had worthy objectives- the countryside needed protecting and people needed to be housed after the War and the act allowed local authorities to do both. The mission of the act is now in conflict with need. One of the first things to be reigned in were the almost anarchic ‘plotlands’

During the 1890’s, agriculture declined because of a series of poor harvests and cheap grain imports from America. Fields [especially marginal land with some along the coast ]were sold off to land agents, who auctioned them off as small plots.
After the First World War, the British Government promised ‘a land fit for heroes’ and building one’s own home in the countryside was encouraged. Later, the Depression of the 1930s drove people to settle in the Plotlands and build themselves a place to live.

For a more in depth article the Dabbler Blog is worth a read.  Plot lands were popular after both wars, it offered a new life and an opportunity to have control over it despite the lack of many services including surfaced roads. There are a few surviving plotlands- Bewdley overlooking the river Severn is a wonderful example of people architecture. Jonathan Meades the culture critic did a series on the BBC in 1990 called Abroad in Britain and features the ideals and architecture of this surviving plotland.

a photo collection of people housing on plotlands can be found here.

It is unlikely homeowners in the conventional sense would accept plotlands across the country- given the hostility to traveller camps, legal or illegal. There seems a widespread, [how to phrase it?] well make up your own mind- homeowners attitudes are ‘I worked hard to own a home why shouldn’t they?’ 20 to 25 years of a third of one’s income hardens attitudes. The view they have, the community they are used too are in there minds hard fought for. Housing which is a basic human right is a contentious issue whether it is ‘single young mums jumping the council house waiting list’ or outsiders illegally occupying land.

Curiously, one of the most popular Grand Designs [Channel 4] episodes is Ben Law who built his own eco home in the woods after living in a tent for years.

Perhaps if it is seen that ‘outsider’ or para-homeowners have earned their homes through hard work they can be accepted. So I propose a compromise- it is not the answer but it could be part of a broader solution. It even fits within the 1947 Planning Act.

Councils are allowed to lease land and allowed to compulsory purchase it and allowed to lease it out to developers. Their powers allow them to by land without planning permission and give permission. Land bought for £10,000 an acre remains the same value with planning permission- therefore the £80,000 budget to build a home available to working couples is possible. The lease can be specific to avoid profiteering with resale value being entirely the value of the actual building not its speculated value. It would have other benefits- provision could be made for DIY builders to build sustainable cheap homes and to avoid the danger of slum dwellings rental would be forbidden and resale limited. For local communities individual homes would have their own character influenced by their owner and avoiding the bland housing developments that use the same bricks, roofs, and 3 bed box design. Also, such ad hoc building would employ many more small building businesses and contractors.

It would stimulate design, it would stimulate empowerment of people to control their environment, it could stimulate a literal ‘cottage industry including cutting edge factory built prefabs aimed at the £50 k market. Allowing flexibility, and innovation in the planning system so certain restrictions are lifted -such as ‘being in keeping with the local architecture’ that often condemn new builds to copy unimaginative architecture – may actually start giving people the confidence to be bold and imaginative.  Their fear is and has been that given a choice the working classes will make the wrong ones- they will have little houses with Corinthian columns or fake beams, but so what? How are we going to find out what we want?

There are a host of other issues such as protecting the environment, sustaining local and rural economies as well as reducing the need to drive everywhere just to work and shop. Part of the solution to those problem is to have a rekindled frontier spirit, something that plotlands could achieve.