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A spirit is haunting Lewisham. It is the spirit of self-build

Militant modernist: Owen Hatherley’s debut AJ column

It might be disappearing from the record faster than you can say ‘hug a hoodie’, but one of the early policies of the coalition government was something called the ‘Big Society’. A rag-bag of libertarian ideas, many of them pertaining to cities, planning and architecture, it all seemed to be based on trying to stop town planners blanketing the country with high-rises, ‘garden grabbing’ and generally being all totalitarian and evil.

In practice, the focus on how awful local government was/is meant that Serco or Capita got given its functions instead, a process that had started under the previous government. But the Big Society is obviously over, signified by the way Eric Pickles or Boris Johnson regularly appear from stage right to wave through all and any planning applications - figuratively and actually big government crushing local campaigners from Mount Pleasant to Liverpool.

The Big Society marked one of those occasional Thatcherite ventures into borrowing the left’s clothes. In this case, it was as if Tories had got hold of an old copy of Non-Plan, the famous 1969 manifesto by Cedric Price, Peter Hall, Reyner Banham and Paul Barker, and borrowed their rhetoric from there. Non-Plan was an anarchic, left-libertarian response to the apparent failures of the social democratic state. It looked, for instance, at the Solent City plan to unite Southampton and Portsmouth via proto-Milton Keynes grid-planned new suburbs and transport arteries, and imagined how much better it’d be if people got to do their own thing instead.

Unfortunately, as should have been obvious, people doing their own thing on this scale really means big business doing its own thing, hence the weird bad-weather-California sprawl that now exists along the Solent, with its retail parks, motorways, executive housing and lack of any of the structure that a more organised or, as Price would have put it, ‘authoritarian’ plan might have brought.

In the 1980s these ideas were rolled out on Enterprise Zones across the country - the insular, suburban, fibreglass-pedimented first phases of Canary Wharf or Salford Quays are cases in point. So they’re hardly beleagured; but was there any survival of the original impulse, that would combine both liberty and equality?

If so, it was in the London Borough of Lewisham, where Colin Ward, Nicholas Taylor and Walter Segal between them secured several council-owned sites for self-build colonies, given over to council tenants for shared ownership. The result was small developments of houses made outrageously cheaply from modular components, which managed, in their system of construction and ownership, to close the usual divide between designer, consumer, contractor and worker.

They all still stand, heavily altered by their residents - as was intended - although the Segal system means that they look a lot more ‘architectural’ in their ordered, elegant expression, than most self-build schemes tend to. As a social project they were only a partial success: like so many of the famous-architect-designed council flats, these houses have often been sold on at about 10 times their original value. Today, they’ve been no more successful at keeping good housing in the public sector than something big, concrete and municipal, like the Brunswick Centre.

But where it gets interesting is that some of the self-builders are trying again - at a site in Ladywell, also in Lewisham, which they hope to secure for a ‘zero waste, energy plus, carbon negative social housing project’, with custom-designed houses, under the management of the local authority. If they get it, then maybe these ideas can return from the private to the public, where they began.

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