The humble prefab faces extinction by councils that see it as disreputable. But Jonathan Glancey discovers an eccentric community of these ingenious homes that's fighting to survive
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The Independent Online
IN CLEETHORPES and Grimsby, it's traditional for children from solid brick houses to tease those from the "Fitties", while adults look down their noses at anyone who chooses to live there. What they are offended by are the 300 or so prefabs and se lf-build homes, many lit by gas, that comprise one of the most original seaside villages in Britain.

The Fitties at Humberstone, four miles south of Grimsby, came into being immediately after the First World War. The name is a local word describing land newly formed as the sea receded. The oddball houses that sprouted here were not homes for working-class heroes - Tommies back from the trenches of France and Belgium - but summer cabins for locals, from craftsmen to civic dignitaries. Here they made cheap seaside homes from old caravan and tram bodies, buses and railway carriages.

By the late Forties, though, the essential character of the place had changed. The Fitties became a place where Sheffield miners, Grimsby trawlermen and Humberside shipbuilders went on holiday. Some of the Sheffield contingent shipped prefabs from their home city to the Fitties, and continued to do so until recently. Today, the place is home to a mixed bunch of retired miners, artists and musicians. The Fitties still offers an individual way of life for those who choose a prefab there.

"Living in the Fitties is like being on holiday all year round," says Peter Chapman, a local journalist with an expert knowledge of the Fitties. "I live in a Victorian cricket pavilion on the edge of Grimsby, not in the Fitties, but our house has the same edge-of-the-world feel. What's the attraction of prefabricated houses? Well, mine's made of wood and sits on squat brick columns. On hot days it expands and creaks; on cold days it contracts and creaks. On windy days it groans. I feel close to the weather. It feels natural and I like that, just like people living in the Fitties."

The houses, on individual plots, are nothing like as genteel as the stolid brick homes of suburbia - but, though known as cabins, they are not caravans. Many owners have trimmed them with the accoutrements of suburbia, from stick-on leaded lights to folksy gates and fences - as if to prove that their homes are more substantial and bourgeois than they are. Some are made of clapboard, others covered in foliage; there are those that look like timber caravans, others like budget versions of beach houses in Cape Cod or California. It is these that best capture the spirit of living close to nature and by the sea.

Local by-laws insist cabins in the Fitties must be lived in for only nine months of the year. Many, however, see them as permanent homes. Retired steelworkers and miners hole up with their children in Rotherham or Barnsley over the three winter months, returning to the wind and sea when the first daffodils show.

It may all seem the perfect antidote to run-of-the-mill suburbia or inner-city estates, but until last Monday the future of the Fitties was under threat. On 12 December, the local council, Cleethorpes, voted on whether or not to sell the whole lot - lock, stock and barrel - to Bourne Leisure, which had already snapped up a nearby caravan park it plans to turn into Europe's biggest. There were grave fears among residents that the hung council (split three ways between Labour, Liberal and Conservative) would unload the Fitties on to the private sector. Why? Because its members felt the prefab village simply wasn't respectable.

The council and some locals, it seems, were mistrustful of such an individualistic colony. These cabins - flimsy things of timber and canvas, felt and tin roofs - were not seen as proper, decent homes. English people are supposed to live in brick castleswith poky rooms and bland facades thrown up by housebuilders. They do not - or should not - live in romantic Robinson Crusoe hideaways, especially when they are gaslit, and, well, different.

In a surprise move, however, Cleethorpes council voted to preserve the Fitties and foil the developers. Labour councillors were persuaded by the arguments of local residents. Nevertheless, local passions had been inflamed. "Local authorities don't reallylike higgledy-piggledy housing," Peter Chapman says. "They like an ordered world of clipboards and lists, where everything is secure and known. The Fitties represents the world of the free spirit, the bohemian - too grand a word, perhaps for the Fitties- and that spells dissidence and danger."

This sentiment is echoed the length and breadth of Britain. Prefab and self-build houses are somehow disreputable, thought of as homes for gypsies thieves, New Age travellers, eccentrics and vagabonds.

Although the Fitties' future is less uncertain after Monday's vote, some residents still fear the council's intervention. Alfie Ellidge, a painter who spends most of her time there, argues that the council has always tried hard to "homogenise" the Fitties. "They send an inspector round on a regular basis," she says. "He looks at your cabin and awards it marks out of 10 as if we were schoolchildren. If we fail to pass his test for any reason, we have to replace things like wonderful old windows with trashy new ones. My beautiful timber floor, 62 years old and a delight, got low marks. So did my interior decoration. Can you imagine the indignity of being told by someone with no taste that your colours don't pass some silly test?"

If the Fitties has long been under threat, so too have Grimsby town's 200-plus prefabs built immediately after the Second World War. These were made in factories, delivered to designated plots, raised, bolted together, kitted out with cast-iron stoves, enamel sinks, copper washers and mangles. Most are still warmed by coal fires. Many residents have been here, contentedly, for decades, but the council wants to move them into nice, respectable brick houses.

Exactly the same thing has been happening in cities as far apart as Glasgow and London. Glasgow was once home to 5,000 prefabs. Unlike their steel-framed, concrete-faced Sassenach siblings, these were made of aluminium and constructed by the Blackburn Aircraft Company of Dumbarton from 1946. They were expected to last 20 years, after which the effects of corrosion would take their toll.

The surviving houses are at Hangingshaw, clinging on with their metal teeth. They might be fascinating examples of wartime mass-production and engineering ingenuity, but the city council thinks they occupy valuable land. The council does not say so, but there is no doubt the surviving prefabs are seen as out of character with a city that has been designated the Arts Council City of Architecture and Design 1999. To demolish them, particularly at such a time, would be short-sighted. Not only do those who live in them like them; prefabs are also fascinating examples of an architectural solution to popular mass housing pioneered in the United States and taxing the imagination of such lateral-thinking engineers as Buckminster Fuller.

Such arguments cut no ice with the London borough of Southwark. Prefabs take up too much land, says the council. And, to make sure they go, it has ruled that any prefab needing more than £1,000 spent on repairs will be exterminated. This seems not just aggressive but pretty rum, given that the Imperial War Mus-eum, located in the borough, has just snapped up 135 Kirkwood Road, Peckham - a steel-framed, concrete-faced prefab in almost original condition - to place entire in its "London at War" exhibit. Southwark's action also seems peevish given that 17 of the surviving prefabs in Birmingham have been listed as buildings of historic and architectural interest. Just as the prefab becomes respectable, respectable councils up and down Britain are trying tokill it off.

The prefab is liked for the very reasons it is despised. It is not a conventional house, but a factory-built product. It is not made of brick or stone, but from aluminium, steel, asbestos (though not of the dangerous sort) and concrete. Prefabs were not lovingly crafted by gnarled and aged men brandishing saws and chisels, but assembled by fitters in as little as 24 hours. A prefab's style comes from having no style: prefabs prove the old adage "handsome is as handsome does". They are the most fit-for-purpose functional buildings you can find.

The prefab we all think of when we hear the word was described as a "rabbit hutch" by Ernest Bevin when he first saw one in 1946. These were the first return on the Attlee government's £150m investment in temporary homes for bombed-out civilians and demobbed soldiers. A Housing Act of 1944 had paved their way. The standard-issue concrete-clad model comprised 2,000 components and came complete with fridge, hot water, indoor lavatory, two bedrooms and sufficient land on which to grow vegetables to supply the average family.

Local councils refuse to be swayed by the pros of the prefab; they see only the cons. Most of all they see a world they cannot control. Prefabs and self-build houses are simply not neat enough. "I guess that a place like the Fitties is doomed," says Peter Chapman. "It's a survivor from a past way of having a really cheap summer holiday, close to nature and away from the busybody world of towns and town councils. I think, despite what so many people say, most British people want to live a safe, risk-freeand secure life. The Fitties and prefabs belong to a very different world and a very different time."