In the post war years, we had a housing problem. A shortage even. Lots of people had been bombed out in the war and it was often cheaper to build new neighbourhoods than it was to repair the bomb damage. The governments of the day weren’t hamstrung by self-imposed borrowing constraints so they geared up to the hilt and embarked on a council house building programme the like of which hadn’t been done before and the like of which hasn’t been done since. Britain went a-housebuilding.
In 1965, which was the peak year for all this, we built 350,000 new homes of which about 40% were council houses, the rest being homes for the private market. In recent years, we have been building a total of just over 100,000 new homes a year (and almost no council houses).
Some look back on these as the golden age of housebuilding. It certainly was in terms of volume, but what was it that they were building back then? Was it any good? Most people agreed back then that the homes we were building were rather better than the ones people had been used to, which were routinely referred to as slums, but many of the slum houses which survived the clearance programmes have been “improved” and are now the bijou middle class residences worth over a million pounds a pop. Very little built in the 50s and 60s is now worth more than the land it stands on.
Britain’s post-war housing boom concentrated on results: it was quick and it was cheap but, by and large, it wasn’t really any good. Some council estates have stood the test of time but many descended into virtually unliveable sink estates, or “cities in the sky” where pimps and drug pushers ruled the roost. These days, it’s buildings from the 50s and 60s which are being demolished. Everything built before the war is tending to be lovingly restored.
Is there a lesson to be learned today? We are being exhorted to “build more homes” and housebuilders are being castigated because they are building so little when demand is so high. But are today’s new builds going to stand the test of time? And if we manage to up the numbers we build, will the standards drop?