The Curse of Mr Barratt: Building Low-Cost Homes, Particularly on Greenfield Sites, Has Always Provoked Snobbish Opposition. as a Result, Our Construction Technologies Remain Outdated and Governments Continue to Fail the Poorest Buyers

By Moran, Joe | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Curse of Mr Barratt: Building Low-Cost Homes, Particularly on Greenfield Sites, Has Always Provoked Snobbish Opposition. as a Result, Our Construction Technologies Remain Outdated and Governments Continue to Fail the Poorest Buyers


Moran, Joe, New Statesman (1996)


After churning out a record 426,000 units in 1968, a great British industry went into a sad, precipitous decline. Unlike other ailing industries such as coal, steel and car manufacturing, it never became a political controversy or a symbol of national failure. The industry was housebuilding, and after decades of being ignored as an electoral issue it is back on the radar.

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Recently released government figures show that housing starts rose to 182,000 in the half-year to June, up almost a third since the nadir of 2001, when housebuilding sank to its lowest rate since 1921. The government's target is 200,000 new houses a year, and even David Cameron has reversed the usual Tory suspicion of greenfield building by gently slapping the wrists of Home Counties nimbies.

Yet housebuilding remains a delicate issue, bound up with our complex feelings about "home". The perennial fear is that our green and pleasant land will be overrun by hideous new houses. The philosopher Alain de Botton recently waged a Jamie Oliver-style crusade against the pastiche styles of new houses, "the Turkey Twizzlers of architecture". These aesthetic anxieties also influence political debates. Cameron argues that local people should be more involved in shaping the design, so that "beauty is built into new houses" and communities are not "overwhelmed by a rash of ugly, insensitive developments". The Tories have launched a campaign to build more family homes instead of poky flats, and to "protect England's gardens and suburban neighbourhoods from being concreted over". The nasty verb "to concrete" invariably appears in these contexts, because concrete is supposed to be a soulless, un-English material, unlike warm, cuddly brick.

The language is strikingly similar to that used to describe housebuilding in the inter-war period. "Mean and perky little houses for mean and perky little souls," was Clough Williams-Ellis's succinct judgement of new suburbia in England and the Octopus (1928). In Pillar to Post (1938), Osbert Lancaster did a de Botton on Metroland, ridiculing the "infernal amalgam" of architectural styles in Stockbroker's Tudor, with its "Wimbledon Transitional" porch and "Romanesque red-brick garage". Lancaster lived to see these "slums of the future" become sought-after properties on the housing market.

But the situation now is very different from that of the inter-war period. Two important things happened at the start of the Thatcher era. First, housebuilding by local councils, which had dominated the housing market since the war, came to a virtual halt. Social housing was now only a safety net, with property-owning seen almost as a definition of citizenship. Hence the boxy "starter home"--or, more commonly now, the two-bedroom cookie-cutter apartment--designed to get first-time buyers on to the property ladder.

Second, there was a wave of conglomeration in the housebuilding industry. In 1930, 84 per cent of house-builders had fewer than ten employees and built only a few houses each year, which ensured some idiosyncrasy in individual designs. Since the early 1980s, however, there has been a corporate neo-vernacular style sponsored by a small number of national housebuilders: a pantiled roof, orange brick walls and white-painted skirting, embellished with nostalgic signifiers such as Tudorbethan timber, neo-Georgian doors and leaded lights. We all know what to call it: the "Barratt home".

Poor old Barratt, eternally damned as a byword for bad taste. It was only ever one of several firms that built this kind of house, but Barratt became synonymous with it because of a kitsch 1970s television commercial featuring the late actor Patrick Allen, who shouted the praises of new homes from a helicopter. The firm also received a boost when Margaret Thatcher bought a Barratt home in 1985, albeit a swankier model in a gated development in deepest Dulwich. After winning the 1987 election, she cashed in her equity before ever moving in--thus benefiting from the house-price boom she had helped to create. …

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