Project – United Kingdom

1870 – 1939

Plotlands refers to small pieces of land laid out in regular plots on which a number of self-built settlements were established in the south-east of England from the late 1800s and up to the Second World War. Characterised by the fact that they were largely built outside the conventional planning system, Plotlands were tolerated by local councils but eventually replaced with new towns and garden suburbs through compulsory purchase orders. Very few traces of the original communities remain, though Jaywick Sands in Essex has evaded development through its geographic and economic marginality. Reaching its peak in the period between the 1920s and 1930s, the Plotland phenomena was interrupted by WWII and the planning regulations that followed.

The result of a specific set of circumstances, Plotlands were a peculiarly English phenomena, tied in large part to the desire to own a piece of land, no matter how small. The agricultural decline of the 1870s, brought on in part by increased imports from British colonies, resulted in farms becoming bankrupt and their land being sold off cheaply in small plots by developers. Farmers in marginal areas that had vulnerable sea-side locations or where the soil was not very fertile, such as the clay soils of Essex, were worst hit. With an increase in holidaying, buying a small plot of land to build a holiday home or set up a small holding became a popular and cheap option for Londoners wanting to escape the cramped conditions of the city.

These self-built, self-reliant settlements were often without basic services such as water and sanitation, with the owners having to petition councils, and to sometimes contribute financially towards their provision, which lead to a strong sense of community. Due to the relaxed planning regulations, the Plotlands took on a character of their own, some converted boats and railway carriages, whilst others built summerhouses; anything from discarded bits of mahogany joinery to sections of garden trellis were used. Over time people from these settlements were relocated to new towns or the areas upgraded so that they have slowly become part of the encroaching suburbia.

Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward gave a definitive account of the Plotlands in their book, Arcadia for All, where they also made the point that increasing planning and building regulations which demand houses to be fully finished before moving in, combined with the difficulties of obtaining a mortgage, has put an end to such self-help housing in the UK. But with the lack of affordable housing and a genuine desire for self-building today, the model of the Plotlands seems increasingly relevant.

References About

Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward, Arcadia for All. The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape (London: Mansell Publishing, 1984).

William Mann, 'The Plotlands Experience: The Self-Build Settlements of Southeast England', Oase: Suburbia and Social Democracy, (Spring 2003);

Colin Ward, 'The Hidden History of Housing', History & Policy, 2004, [accessed 11 May 2010].

'Dunton Plotlands', [accessed 11 May 2010].


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