Anyone who knows me knows that there are certain things I hold to be true. Moreover, I also like the concept that opinions should, ideally, be based on facts. So, that when these two come together in life, I’m doubly pleased. Indeed, these situations confirm my belief in that supportive, sharing and caring society and, in the process, sustain me.
So, where is this leading? Well, it’s to some of the ideas described in my book, “The Real Big Society”, among which is the belief that talent is fairly evenly spread throughout society whereas the resources to develop it aren’t. The results of which are detrimental both individually and communally. Now I could go on all day about the fact that women are still paid less than men for equivalent work or any of the host of other discriminatory issues that still prevail today in 21st century Britain. What I will do instead is to describe practical examples in which people in the worst of circumstances, both men and women, tackled their own problems in very practical ways and, in doing so, changed their lives. I refer, of course, to the projects that I had some involvement with in which people, who were homeless and unemployed, built their own homes.
These were based on a couple of housing schemes designed by the architect, Walter Segal, in the 1970’s. They utilised his simple timber framed methods of building which enabled people, without previous building experience, to build. When I first came across this idea, I was sceptical; once I saw it in operation, I was knocked out.
Well, after a lot of hard work, Lewisham Council, to their eternal credit, agreed to let a small group of people on its housing waiting list, build their own homes in this way. Using land that was difficult to build on with more conventional techniques, the authority provided the land and the self builders, the labour. The only other requirement was a mortgage which, again, the council provided; making the whole thing affordable. The scheme, at Segal Close, was so successful that a second one was built in Walter’s Way, affording Walter the unique distinction, I understand, of being the only architect to have two London streets named after him. When he died, a charity was set up in his name to further his ideas and I was lucky enough to become its Director.
Among the schemes which followed was one in Brighton, Hedgehog Self Build Group; something I’ve described previously as one of my “little pieces of Wonderland”. Twelve families whose members were homeless and/or unemployed went on to, over a period of two years, to build their own homes. The scheme was even featured on TV’s “Grand Designs”. Thirteen years later, it featured on “Grand Designs Revisited”. Those twelve families are still there. Moreover, when I last checked, they were all working with their children now grown up.
Maybe that’s why these schemes were described by one government minister at the time as demonstrating “the extraordinary abilities of ordinary people. Good news indeed.