Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes made of ticky tacky,
Little boxes on the hillside,
Little boxes all the same.
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
From “Little Boxes” by Malvina Reynolds, sung by Pete Seeger
Kevin McCloud’s Little Boxes aren’t made out of ticky tacky – they’re apparently made from Hempcrete, a new material made from hemp, whose botanical name is Cannabis Sativa. It was depressing watching his programme, “Kevin’s Grand Design”, because “grand” is probably the least appropriate word for the designs – they are small, cramped, “little boxes” in fact and, most depressing of all, with very little outdoor space.
At one time a garden, a private place to relax and grow flowers and vegetables was considered essential even in the most basic housing*. In the 1920’s, the Ministry of Health specified that no more than 8 houses should be built to the acre and that there should be a minimum of 70 feet between each house. This is how it was put:
“The objective is to secure round the house the air space required for health, to grow fruit and vegetables for our table…to surround ourselves with pleasant places to live and work, rest and play, and to entertain friends”.
In the inter-war years, 1 million houses were built by local authorities to this specification, and a further 3 million houses were built privately, creating the suburbia which we know today, with its familiar lay-out of cul-de-sacs lined by a double row of trees. The houses were built on farmland and society accepted that the loss of green space was a price worth paying to allow people to escape the poor conditions of the cities.
In Kevin McCloud’s development, which was built by a Housing Association using public money (£4.2m), the density of houses is more than double that permitted 85 years ago, with the result that there is no room for private gardens. His development has small spaces allocated for allotments, but that’s it. What has brought about this sad state of affairs? A clue could be found in the fierce opposition which Kevin McCloud faced from neighbours to the two developments which he described in his programme (the first of which was aborted because of public opposition). People who already own houses don’t want new houses to be built on their doorstep and public policy (which is an extension of this nimbyism) won’t allow any development on farmland. We are now 8 times richer than we were 85 years ago, so it’s pretty shocking that the quality of our new social housing stock should be so much inferior to what it used to be. Perhaps that’s why Kevin McCloud packed his walls with Cannabis Sativa.
*These statistics and quotations are taken from “Suburban Ideals on England’s Interwar Council Estates” by Matthew Hollow, published in the Journal of the Garden History Society (39: 2 2011).