Plotlands – the struggle for land and affordable housing

Plotlands – the informally-planned settlements of self-built bungalows, chalets and shanties that gave working class families affordable access to rural and seaside property between the wars – are a distinctive feature of the British landscape and a living reminder of struggles over planning and property rights.

Plotlands in Essex
Plotlands today near Wickford in Essex

It was the ability to build your own home affordably, adding to it over the years as income allowed, that motivated working class families to acquire plots of land, initially for weekend and holiday use, in nearly 300 plotland sites, many still flourishing today. These plotlands were seen by their residents as the real garden villages, settlements organised and run by mutual aid and collective action,  where the benefits of rural living could be enjoyed by families escaping from city slums, and a house in the country could become a realistic ambition for otherwise property-less people. 

Duncton Hills, Plotlands museum near Basildon
Dunton Hills plotlands museum

Aided by new rail access to country and coast, with legislation in 1938 providing holidays with pay, working class households bought plots of poor quality marginal land at auction to build their holiday homes. The homes they erected on these plots were initially tents, huts or old railway carriages. They were single-storey houses, simply built from whatever material (corrugated iron, asbestos, pre-cast concrete and bricks) lay at hand. The homesteaders cycled from the station with building materials strapped to their backs, turning their labour into capital, and extending their self-built homes as their income allowed.

While the self-made resort of Peacehaven is now indistinguishable from any other seaside town, the characterful riverside homes at Bewdley on the banks of the Severn continue to excite architectural interest, while plotlands at Dungeness and at Humberston near Cleethorpes, are now protected as conservation areas. The plotlands at Laindon in Essex housed a settled population of 25,000 in the 1940s,  served by 75 miles of grass-track roads, with no sewers and just standpipes for water supply. Incorporated into Basildon new town, this informally planned settlement is now a nature reserve and houses the Dunton Hills Plotland museum, while on the outskirts of other Essex towns, the irregular landscape of plotlands is still visible, and shacks and chalets persist in the haphazard scattering of more ostentatious self-built homes along a grid-iron pattern of unadopted roads. 

It was to cleanse the landscape of these self-built settlements that the 1947 town planning legislation was created. Plotlands such as the thriving settlement at Shoreham Beach were demolished by local authorities, and orderly efficient land uses and extortionate land values were restored by putting an end to the property-owning democracy that this bungalow town had promised. Back in the 1930s the Plotlands movement was described as “land nationalisation” in that it promised to make property-ownership and country living available affordably to all and to end dependence on landlords and their rent-racking. But after the 1947 Act compulsory purchase powers were used to deprive working class smallholders of their seaside living. 

Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy, whose research has saved Plotlands from the oblivion of official planning histories, liken these self-build towns to the informal settlements of the Global South, where mutual aid and self-organisation challenge the urban landscapes of exclusion and eviction. In Jaywick Sands, for example, the Plotlanders planned and ran their own town, erecting street lighting from their own subscriptions, building their own flood protection, and running their own sewage disposal service.  This was not so much a story of individual endeavour and enterprise, but a response to exclusion and the refusal of the local state to provide services to homes that did not conform to regulations. The Plotlands of Britain remain a critical example of popular planning and of the continuing struggle for land and affordable housing.

For more information about Plotlands, Colin Ward and Dennis Hardy’s ‘Arcadia for All: the legacy of a makeshift landscape’ is the definitive account.

There are excellent web resources, about Dunton Plotlands (, HUMBERSTON FITTIES, and Bewdley from which images on this page are taken. In the Town Planning Review, Lost plotlands: regulatory consequences of forgotten places. (2021, 92 (5) pp. 643-666), Richard Bower maps over 250 plotlands. Perhaps there is one near you.

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