Ben takes a look at planners and how it all started
I’ve been caught up at work lately in a bit of a moral quandary.
Dealing with a landlord who has brought onto the market several properties for homeless single people.
Although small bordering on pokey many of the tenants I’ve been speaking to see it as a welcome alternative to sleeping on the streets, where they would undoubtedly be if it weren’t for these rooms.
Trouble is, they’ve been built without planning permission and most London boroughs have a planning regulation whereby you don’t get planning permission for converting much needed family homes into small rooms.
So planning officers are forced to tell them to re-convert back to single dwellings, much to the chagrin of both occupants and landlords in order to satisfy the government imposed planning regulations.
I’m not a planning enforcement officer but I’ve been visiting the properties with them talking to the tenants and their concerns for housing need and homelessness, hence the quandary. In order to do the right legal thing, the planning laws will displace many happy people.
Troubled by all this I decided to spend a few hours this bank holiday weekend researching an interesting area of planning law history and thought my discoveries might be of interest to Landlord Law Blog readers.
A brief history of planning
Apparently in the 1870s a depression settled on agricultural land which continued until the start of the second world war in 1939.
Farms went bankrupt and fields, especially in hard to farm areas like Essex marshes and Canvey Island in Kent got sold on by cash strapped farmers as very cheap gridded plots to working class people looking for a country retreat or just a home.
The ‘Plotlanders’ movement was born. A self-build revolution whereby ordinary people got very creative with old railway carriages, sheds, bits of trellis and whatever else they could lay their hands on and had their own bit of England (and Scotland) to do with as they please, without being encumbered by planning regulations.
The resultant villages had no sanitation, electricity, gas or road infrastructures but what they lacked in services they made up for in groups with common interests who helped each other out and created a sense of community, in places like Jaywick Sands, one of the last of the Plotland developments to escape planning enforcement and which is still there today.
The residents of Jaywick recruited an army of kids to deal with the emptying of chemical toilets, known as ‘The Bisto Kids’……a worrying sobriquet but the point is the place trotted along with it’s own grass roots system that responded simply to the needs of the people living there and without interference from state or local government.
The authority view
Councils and politicians never liked these places though, feeling they were ramshackle and too anarchistic in nature to be controlled, a concern over people power that still runs through government thinking to this day.
What often started off as a simple shack affair gradually grew over the years as money came into the families and bits got added on, creating sometimes quite substantial and idiosyncratic homes.
Whole new villages were formed which councils ended up providing street lighting and utility supplies for.
After the war
Things obviously took a back seat during the second world war but by 1945 many were made homeless as a result of bombing and thousands of returning servicemen who had spent 6 years taking no crap from Hitler weren’t about to take crap from the British government when it came to recognising the state of the housing crisis.
They formed squatting groups taking over not only empty homes but also now redundant army bases. By October 1946, over a year after the end of the war, government reported 39,535 people housed in 1,038 ex military bases. They weren’t placed there by the council, the people just took them over.
Government weren’t best pleased and in the following year they introduced the landscape we think is set in stone, The ‘Town and Country Planning Act 1947’ which contains the philosophical seed-germ approach to planning as we now know it.
Namely that decisions about people’s homes were best left to the professionals, which meant councils, investors and property developers.
Random housing terrorists like Walter Segal got through the net occasionally, particularly his ideas of the 60s and 70s to build prefabricated wooden panel homes in difficult to build, unused spaces, which was actually pioneered in Lewisham, particularly just off St Germains Road in Catford where an attractive very steep hilled wooden village grew up.
One in 1995 I was to be involved in as a TRO where the landlord illegally evicted her tenant.
I remember effecting re-entry by crawling through the bathroom window where his clothes had been placed in the bath and covered in bleach by the landlord, thinking “Hmmmm……I wouldn’t mind living here”……..current landlord aside.
All of which brings me back to the present day.
Not long ago government’s response to the housing crisis was to temporarily relax planning laws. Family homes (not flats) had the advantage of what is termed ‘Permitted development’, mainly centring around building extensions which ate up less than 50% of the garden and were no more than 3 metres in height.
Fine for a growing family but it doesn’t expand the pool of housing, unless you count the developers I started out with in this piece who built the PD extensions to rent out as rabbit hutches for desperate people in need, at the local Housing Allowance rate of housing benefit. Paid for by thee and me.
The recent criminalisation of squatting residential property puts further paid to the pragmatic squatting (as opposed to idealistic squatting-a different ballgame) of our post WW2 forebears.
Whilst property investment companies land-bank empty sites and Boris Johnson launches investment-fests for London plots in Singapore the typical British dream of owning a little piece of your own seems killed off for good.
Planning for investors
The people based dreams of the Plotlanders of 1870-1939 have been swallowed up by a planning system which favours homes as investment opportunities over homes as self-regulating communities.
It isn’t new. Its all merely a philosophical extension of the various Land Enclosures Acts between 1604 and 1914, through which public land was gobbled up into private ownership on a large scale.
The planning argument ushered in by the 1947 Act would suggest that if people were left unrestricted to build their own homes then the landscape would be blighted by eccentric monstrosities but as I drive around my borough, I see everyday the planner’s version of homes.
Disgusting, soulless and windowless rabbit hutches designed to maximise investments for developers with no organic infrastructure that might reflect the needs of the communities.
Jerry built flats on windy dual carriage-ways being preferable to human-scale eccentric villages full of happy people.
A bit of hope?
Reading about this commonly lost bit of history gave me hope, an optimism that there are at least doesn’t need to be a planner’s strangle hold on our housing. The model is still there and there are enough people pushing modern versions of the Plotlander dream to keep it alive.
If only government would get serious about building more homes and allow more people to just get on with it, instead of viewing grass roots movements as ‘Anarchy’.