The caravan moves on...
Paul Hyett, 29 July 2021
As children, my brother and I frequently visited an uncle who lived alone in a caravan located on a park site to the west of Hereford. He was in particularly unhappy circumstances having sought refuge there following the break-up of his marriage. I remember how bitterly cold that caravan was during winters. The primitive ‘chemical’ toilet (no more than a large bucket with a wooden seat) was in a garden shed next to which he parked his car.
My impression, rightly or wrongly, was that the entire site, perhaps some 150 caravans, was dedicated to accommodating a combination of similar lonely individuals fallen on hard times, together with families otherwise unable to secure, or sustain, more conventional accommodation.
So I was surprised to see, earlier this month during a visit to Hereford, a large sign in Kings Acre Road (my uncle’s location) proudly announcing, ‘Fayre Oaks Home Park’. Curious, I drove in. Apart from the rather pretentious name upgrade, little had changed in terms of the site’s layout in the intervening 50 years.
What struck me immediately was how spick and span everything was -- immaculate would be a better description. In lieu of gravel tracks with deep potholes, I now found neat tarmac roads with small imitation Victorian streetlamps. The little gardens were beautifully planted and maintained, with a generous sprinkling of garden gnomes and mock wishing wells, chain-link fencing and ornate gateways.
As for the caravans, they could hardly be discerned under an array of new pitched and tiled roofs. Each was adorned with brick ‘skirts’ to its base, plastic drainpipes indicating the new bathrooms within, double-glazed plastic windows, porches, lobbies and front doors. Some were clad in timber, tiles or even brickwork. Only the mandatory steps required to access the raised floors gave the game away: they are, after all, still caravans on steel frames and wheels. Those outside sheds that once housed the lavatories now accommodate washing machines and tumble-driers.
My memory of the place in the 1960s, rightly or wrongly, was of generally poorly maintained gardens, with just a few that reflected some effort and pride. Such high standards of care now evident across the entire estate caused me to think back to a recent trip I made to Harlow.
My purpose had been to inspect The Lawn, Britain’s first residential ‘tower block’, completed in 1951 to a design by Frederick Gibberd. The building, which is only 10 storeys high, provides south-facing balconies to every flat. Unlike so many of the estimated 440,000 municipal high-rise flats built in the subsequent 25 years (the majority without balconies!) ‘The Lawn’ remains popular and well cared for by its residents. Not so the many two-storey terraced houses that surround it. In this respect, a very noticeable dichotomy exits between what I suspect are in the most part municipally built houses, which remain part of Harlow’s rentable housing stock, and those that had to be offered for sale under Mrs Thatcher’s ‘right-to-buy’ initiative.
Many of the homes remaining in rented tenure (irrespective of whether the owner is an ‘absentee’ landlord, a housing association, or the council) are typically overgrown and poorly maintained, some even littered with obsolete furniture and disused cars.
This contrasts sharply with my experience as a child: over those years my parents rented four different houses in Cwmbran and Hereford and it was a matter of pride for tenants (all houses on the estate were tenanted) that they kept their windows and doorsteps clean, and their gardens well-tended. Many had beautiful lawns to the front and vegetables growing at the back.
Some readers may think that I have a starry-eyed view of the past, but I think that this is territory that very urgently needs serious study. Even today many council and housing association tenants will take great pride in their property and gardens, but I think something sinister happened when the Thatcher administration suggested that ‘right-to-buy’ policies would solve any and all problems associated with council rentals. A consequence of that prominent Thatcher initiative was that the profile of municipal renting was damaged. It became seen as something for poorer people, those unable to buy, and those, particularly the young, unable to ‘get onto the housing ladder’.
Instead of placing blind faith in home ownership as the solution to the ‘housing problem’, Thatcher’s government should have examined the wide variety of other contributors to the problem, particularly poor maintenance, poor management, poor allocation strategies, and dare I say it, public education in terms of ‘civitas’ about which Richard Sennett has written so eloquently.
This is precisely why the Fayre Oaks Home Park is so instructive. A read of the ‘Park Owner’s’ brochure reveals the strict policies that are in place in terms of conduct: indeed, it is precisely the rules relating to behaviour, and the confidence that the residents have that they will be applied, that makes this place, and other caravan parks like it, so attractive to their occupants. Residents know that the managers won’t ‘dump’ problem families in their midst, and that ground plot leases will not be renewed for those whose behaviour is deemed anti-social either by conduct (loud music and raves) or neglect (overgrown gardens and unmaintained fences).
A rare but useful piece of research in this respect is contained in a 2009 paper by Mark Bevan of York University’s Centre for Housing Policy, ‘Park Home Living in England: Prospects and Policy Implications’, from which I offer the following interesting points:
‘Static’ caravans (that is wheeled vehicles that require transporting by lorry as they are too large and insufficiently rigid to be towed) are grouped with converted railway carriages and houseboats as ‘non-permanent accommodation’ which houses 0.3% of England’s population. ‘Park homes’ (like house boats) do not count as dwellings under the law, being otherwise classified as chattels. They are thus excluded from Building Regulations, even though in visual terms most modern park homes resemble bungalows.
Of the 160,000 (and rising) residents who live on some 2,000 sites in England, most own their homes but not the land upon which they sit, which is subject to a ‘pitch fee’ payable to the site owner. This covers ground rent, maintenance of the common areas, and any services otherwise provided on the park.
Some 32% of occupants are over 65 compared with 16% in the general population, and around two-thirds of site operators accept only people over 50. The trend towards park homes as an option for elderly people has accelerated rapidly in the last two decades, but even in 2002 some 68% of residents were over 65 years old compared to 55% a decade earlier. This trend has continued to escalate as more older people elect to cash in on their houses to top up pensions.
This is likely to drive out ‘rogue’ poor grade park operators in favour of those willing to respond responsibly to the needs and interests of this new breed of well-organised and well-heeled ‘temporary home’ residents. Such people like the security of what is seen widely as a ‘gated’ community, where a high level of surveillance is maintained by operators and neighbours alike, where there is a strong sense of kindred friendship, and where anti-social conduct is dealt with firmly and quickly.
These things should happen routinely in council-built and owned accommodation. That they all too often don’t should be cause for grave concern, prompting some proper research into why, and to the consequences of such failures of management.
Marquess Road in the London Borough of Islington is one such example. Designed by Darbourne and Darke and opened in 1976, it was one of the most interesting municipal housing projects of the post-war era comprising a dense low-rise scheme ranging between three and six stories which offered a deliberate alternative to 1960s tower blocks. But soon after its opening, the project gained a fearsome reputation, and its problems became so acute that the council ultimately demolished most of the development.
Such a ‘failure’ was all the more surprising when set against Darbourne and Darke’s earlier, phenomenal and enduringly successful Lillington Gardens project, a similar design completed in 1972 in Westminster. The contrasting fates of the schemes highlights the interdependency of issues such as tenure, tenant selection and home allocation, maintenance, management, policing and, dare I suggest, education, social behaviour, and citizenship.
The owners of Fayre Oaks Park understand this, and the residents know they do. How good it would have been if the Thatcher government had too.