LONDON, March 2 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An indoor
toilet, a fitted kitchen, heating and a garden - it was the
stuff of dreams when Britain embarked on an ambitious project in
the 1940s to build prefabricated housing for people who had lost
their homes during World War Two.
Bombing raids had destroyed two million homes, 60 percent of
them in London, prompting wartime Prime Minister Winston
Churchill to look to Scandinavia and the United States, where
timber prefabrication for houses began in the 1860s.
Dubbed "palaces for the people", they offered cheap rent and
unimagined luxury to soldiers returning from war and displaced
Britons who had been bombed out of their homes and ended up in
overcrowded houses with neither electricity nor plumbing.
"It was nothing short of a social housing revolution," said
Elisabeth Blanchet, who has documented the history of prefabs
since 2001 and co-founded the Prefab Museum.
The government recruited the jobless, as well as German and
Italian prisoners of war, to assemble more than 100,000 of the
bungalows, built off-site and delivered ready-made to the plots.
Even though the dwellings were meant to last for just 10 to
15 years, thousands of families lived in prefabs much longer,
many of them forging a deep bond with their homes.
RETURN OF THE PREFAB
Faced with a chronic, new housing shortage, Britain is once
more embracing prefabrication as it struggles to meet its
promise to build a million homes in England by 2020.
In a major policy announcement last month, the government
said it supported off-site construction, promised financial
support for prefabs and to make public land available for
"modular schemes", as they are known now.
"It's an obvious way to solve the current housing crisis -
to use more prefabrication," said David Heathcote, an
architectural historian at Liverpool John Moores University.
While not always cheaper, prefabrication is far quicker and
more reliable than traditional brick and mortar, which Heathcote
said can suffer skill shortages and poor craftsmanship.
Britain's largest remaining prefab housing estate sits in
Catford, a suburb in south London. The Excalibur Estate dates
back to the 1940s and now faces demolition, despite a fierce
preservation battle waged by campaigners and residents.
The Excalibur, once a maze of alleyways connecting 187
pastel-coloured prefabs, has long been a target for development
as it occupies prime London land, with prime property prices.
HOME SWEET HOME
While prefabs have drawn scorn - critics say they are poor
quality and hard to heat - Excalibur resident Christine Gregory
said hers had been a perfect home for more than 30 years.
"This is my friendly little place and I love it," said
Gregory, stroking one of the 12 cats who also call it home.
Posters of movie stars cover the walls and cat toys litter
the floor - it is a home that holds half her life, and
64-year-old Gregory does not want to leave that history behind.
"I'm not going anywhere," said the retired factory worker.
The plan is to flatten the estate and build almost 400
modern flats, offering a mix of social and private housing.
As some homes have already been demolished, her two-bedroom home
has fallen into disrepair because the local Lewisham council,
her landlord, no longer invests in upkeep.
The council says it would cost millions to modernise the
prefabs, money it could better spend on modern accommodation and
providing homes for London's growing numbers of homeless.
"The regeneration of the estate has secured better quality
accommodation for existing residents and provided an opportunity
to increase the number of homes for affordable rent
available...," Lewisham Council said in an email.
Gregory, who used to share with her mother and son but now
lives alone, is worried the council will move her to a small
flat where she would not be able to take her cats and be
uprooted from a close-knit neighbourhood.
"We've got a nice community here, it's peaceful, and we look
out for each other," she said.
A sense of pride and community is what sisters Pat Cutler
and Andree Jones remember most fondly of their childhood growing
up in a prefab in the 1950s in Birmingham.
"It was a whole different political culture then," Cutler
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at a Prefab Museum workshop
in Birmingham. "It was all about building a welfare state and
making sure people had homes fit to live in."
The retired sisters have joined forces with the Prefab
Museum to help map prefabs and record residents' memories.
The Excalibur Estate redevelopment symbolises a common
conundrum for Britain's cities - as house prices and rents have
surged in many parts of Britain, particularly in London, they
are struggling to meet demand and find land to build homes.
Since then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began selling
off council homes in the 1980s, very little social housing has
been built, with successive governments instead seeking to help
those trying to get a foot on the property ladder.
As a consequence, demand has outstripped supply in many
areas of the country, pushing up the average price of a property
to more than eight times average earnings and forcing many
people to spend up to half their income on rent.
In 2015, a prefab in Peckham, a once-run down but now
popular area in south London, sold for 950,000 pounds ($1.2
million), touted for its "new built residential development
potential" - in other words, the land it was built on.
While prefabrication is making a comeback, it's hard to
image how such new developments will provide the same sense of
community as the old-style prefabs, said Jane Hearn, a London
community worker and co-founder of the Prefab Museum.
"These prefabs were built to provide housing on a human
scale so that people were able to look after them and after each
other," said Hearn. "Modern housing isn't like that anymore,
unless you are very rich."
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert , Editing by Lyndsay
Griffiths.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)