Posted by: Colin Wiles28/11/2011
The government should look to the 1930s for innovative ways to encourage self build, says Colin Wiles
Grant Shapps is keen on self-build and the housing strategy takes a step to encourage it. But desperate times call for desperate measures so here’s a radical idea: how about reviving a scheme from the 1930s that would allow people not only to build their own homes but to grow their own food and live a self-sufficient lifestyle?
The Land Settlement Association was set up by the government in 1934 to offer smallholdings to unemployed workers from the industrial areas of England. The first one was at Potton, in Bedfordshire where 30 smallholdings were set up. Between 1934 and 1939 1,500 smallholdings were created in 26 settlements, housing 4,000 people on 11,000 acres. Each family was given a cottage and 5 acres to grow food and keep livestock. The settlements were like collective farms and each was expected to grow cash crops, such as cucumbers and salads under glass, to pay for their running costs. The scheme was a mixed success; about half of the settlers moved on because the rules were rigid and many families did not take to agricultural life. After the war the LSA was absorbed in the county council schemes for smallholdings and then wound-up in 1983 and the properties privatised.
But imagine a modern version of the LSA. It would chime with current thinking on sustainability, self build, self-sufficiency, food miles and a yearning for a more spiritual approach to life. What’s more, it would help to soak up some of the surplus labour that capitalism no longer needs and allow people to learn relevant new skills and live semi-independently of the conventional system.
As I’ve written before, it’s a myth that we live in an overcrowded island. We have plenty of surplus land and there is scope to make it more productive. I was struck by a recent Guardian article about a scheme near Hay-on-Wye run by Dr Paul Benham that produces an annual turnover of £25,000 from just one and a half acres. He uses permaculture and organic systems to produce much more produce than conventional farming could ever do. Imagine what would be possible on five acres.
During the twenties and thirties, there was a significant self-build programme called the plotlands, but it developed independently of government control, mainly driven by Londoners buying plots of land in the countryside to build holiday homes. Places like Jaywick and Dunton are the legacy, but they never had the proper infrastructure to make them work properly, whereas this scheme in Holland, which has apparently caught Grant Shapps’ eye, began with the infrastructure and then parcelled up the plots for self-builders. Large swathes of Victorian England were developed in this way - streets and infrastructure were provided and then the plots were marked out and sold off to small builders and self builders who created a diverse and eclectic streetscape, so unlike the mass produced rabbit hutches that have been imposed upon us over the past fifty years.
A revived version of the LSA, with less rigid rules, would hit many nails with a single hammer. Social enterprise structures – co-operatives, community land trusts or community interest companies – could be set up to deliver the vision. The Emmaus communities and places like Findhorn already follow this model to some extent, but the missing elements are land and a too-rigid planning system. Yet according to the HCA there are around 158,000 acres of brownfield land in England and some of it, old airfields for example, is not suitable for large-scale building but could be converted into an LSA-style project. A pilot scheme would only need a few acres to get started off and I am sure there would be a huge demand for it.
From Inside out
An independent look at the housing sector and beyond from Colin Wiles