Canley Gardens Centenary: Echoes of today’s controversial planning compromises
Innis Road, Bates Road, Nightingale Lane, The Riddings
A hundred years ago this month the controversy surrounding the development of Canley Gardens in Earlsdon was resolved. The city council planning committee had been forced to give permission to the development despite it falling far short of their planning rules. It is echoed in the recent relaxation of local authority planning rules by national government, allowing poorer standards in matters such as the conversion of office blocks into pod-like accommodation. The following account of the Canley Garden’s episode is taken from The Coventry We Have Lost: Earlsdon and Chapelfields Explored that I co-wrote in 2011 (now out of print).
It must have stuck in the throats of the city councillors on the General Works Committee to have to impotently watch as the Canley Gardens Society ran a coach and horses through their long established planning by-laws.
But the Society had the government on their side. Immediately after the First World War there was such a desperate housing shortage that hard won by-laws were ignored by government decree. The 1919 Addison Acts, as well as encouraging the construction of local authority housing via grants and subsidies, also eased some of the rules for private housing developments.
It also encouraged the formation of Public Utility Societies that allowed groups of individuals to finance relatively inexpensive housing developments. The Canley (Coventry) Garden Society Ltd was such an organisation.
It was run as a form of cooperative by a committee led by Chairman Thomas Trotter, an engine fitter and Secretary Edgar Morrell , a local teacher. During the War most of the members, like Trotter, were involved in working at the Ordnance factory, off Stoney Stanton Road, and were committed socialists. The land was owned collectively rather than as individuals.
They submitted their plans for the estate of five roads late in 1919. The land was bought from Browetts, a firm of Coventry solicitors in December 1918. The land had been considered fit for development for some while after being originally sold at auction in 1894 and being described as ‘accommodation land’ – but only for just one ‘dwelling house’!
The first the City Engineer and Surveyor knew about the scheme was when the society’s architects made contact to ensure that a water supply would be laid on as they had started laying out the roads.
This was like a red rag to a bull as the official wanted to know ‘under what authority you are preparing to lay out the land’, further pointing out out that as the land was within the city boundary then their plans should have been submitted for approval before any work was done.
In reply the architect played his trump card by stating that this step was not necessary as he had the permission of the Birmingham based Housing Commissioner. Such a position was another new feature of the 1919 Housing Act. Various District Housing Commissioners were given the authority to speed the construction of housing throughout the country. The Canley Gardens scheme appears to be one of the first cases that the city council had come across. Various letters of complaint were sent by the Corporation to the District Commissioner and the Canley Garden Society with mixed results.
Although the Society provided plans, their roads were only 25 feet wide unlike the 40 foot minimum that was insisted upon elsewhere in Coventry. But far more alarming was the reliance on sewage disposal via individual cess pools rather than being connected to the mains sewer. The Corporation stressed that this was in an area prone to water-logging during wet weather with consequent serious health risks due to contamination from sewage.
The Society were prepared to compromise on road widths but were not prepared to give up land for the associated drainage ditches, nor to give up their idea of cess pools to deal with sewage. The Housing Commissioner sympathised with the Corporation’s concerns but repeated the fact that this was an approved scheme under the 1919 Act, however, he was prepared to visit Coventry and try and broker a settlement between the Corporation and the Society.
In May 1920 the meeting took place and it concluded with the Corporation accepting that the development would go ahead, but they would not adopt the sub-standard roads and would expect plans for any dwellings to be submitted. Nevertheless, as with the layout of the development, they would not be prepared to give formal approval to any subsequent building plans but neither would they object.
Sniping between the City Engineer and the Canley Gardens Society continued for another couple of years until the Society went into voluntary bankruptcy in December 1921. The original forty plots making 30.5 acres had been bought in 1919 with government loans for almost £29,000. Individuals had contributed 40% of the original price and loans accounted for the remaining 60%.
When the society was formally liquidated in 1922 £8000 was still outstanding. This was paid off over the next six years. Individuals now took on full ownership of their plots and were free to subdivide the plots, but no more than three per acre. At the time plans for only 16 houses within the development had been submitted of which 12 were occupied. The roads were not named until the 1930s using their plot number (from 1 to 72) appended to the name Canley Gardens as their address.
Many of the dwellings were typical of the ‘shack and track’ developments that followed the Canley Gardens pattern in other parts of the country. This especially applied to those in the less favourable sections of the estate that were more susceptible to flooding. ‘Shack and track’ developments tended to be found in the south of England but there were other examples locally such as Binley Woods.
Buildings were often of low cost construction because of the extremely high cost of ordinary building materials in this immediate post war period. This meant using simple concrete stud walls with asbestos tiling or just wooden walls and corrugated iron roofing. Also typical was the use of converted army huts from the war, found in at least three of the dwellings here (see example below).
It would not be surprising to find that even old railway carriages or tram cars also being used. A few more affluent plot owners could afford to build in materials that would not have been out of place in conventional suburban estates. This applied to the Chairman, Edgar Morrell whose house was the first to be built on the estate (Now 2 Innes Road) for £800.
The Corporation began to assert control over some of these projects as was the case for a Mr Wetherley (another prominent member of the Society) who was looking to move from Stanley Road in Earlsdon to plot 48 (later known as 6, The Riddings). He wanted to use an ex-army hut that would be converted into a three room dwelling. The Corporation gave him permission, but only on the basis that he enter into a £200 bond with them to guarantee its removal at any time in the future when they requested it. However, the hut was still there after the Second World War.
The 1950s saw the start of great changes in the area. Like other ‘shack and track’ sites around the country its character gradually changed into a conventionally desirable residential area. The plots were large and grander bungalows and houses were substituted for the temporary or poorly built originals.
Developers continued to sub divide plots to fit on more dwellings, especially as in this instance, where the plots backed onto the attractive greens of the golf course. Such intensive development would have been impossible without the Corporation arranging the installation of main sewerage in the 1950s, making the cess pool system redundant.
Even at this time the state of the roads in the area was still more rural track than suburban street. It was not until 1957 that the Corporation tarmacked the roads. Today the roads remain narrow and the refusal of the Society all those years ago to meet the Corporation demands for setting back the fence-line of the plots to allow footpaths and ditches, adds to the enclosed feeling for anyone driving in the area. This is despite the additional Corporation led improvements to the Riddings in 1970 through compulsory purchase of frontages. Later the road was closed to through traffic and passing bays installed.
David Fry, Historian and CovSoc Member