When I was setting out to finally buy a flat of my own, my biggest red line was ‘no new-build properties’. The period property premium might be a sign of national decay, but it is real; you can take the high ceilings, large windows, and solid construction from my cold dead hands.
The place in North London I ended up with – a second-floor flat above a shop, overlooking a high street – would almost certainly not have seemed at all remarkable to those that built it. Given the extraordinary rate of progress in the preceding century, they cannot have imagined in 1896 (the completion date is proudly stamped on the building) that such residences would be so sought-after more than a century hence.
Yet post-war housing construction suffered the same fate as the decay of the public-sector estate, which has been so brutally exposed by the Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (‘RAAC’) crisis. Solid, enduring construction gradually gave way to buildings thrown up on the cheap by a country reeling from the eye-watering cost of both fighting the Second World War and, increasingly, spiralling post-war welfare commitments.
Being generous to that generation, it could be that they assumed the arc of national progress would resume and take care of the problem in time. John Oxley suggests that, ‘In the post-war years, things were done on the cheap with the hope that future generations would have more cash when the shortish lifecycles ran out.‘
That shift, however, never took place, perhaps in part because the old imperial prosperity never returned, but in part too because the scope of government had expanded so much into the realm of ongoing revenue expenditure as it annexed the healthcare sector and rolled out the frontiers of the welfare and regulatory state.
Just as with the post-war planning system, the result has been to set a time bomb ticking. The dangers of RAAC were first flagged in the 1990s; that the country was on course for a crushing housing crisis as far back as the 1970s. In both cases, nothing was done.
As a result, we could now be set for years, perhaps decades, of paying the full, real price for all those buildings our forebears threw up on the cheap. RAAC was used not just for schools but hospitals, courts, and many other parts of the public sector estate. The scale of the problem could be huge, renovations will be very expensive, the disruption could last decades.
But what does this have to do with my flat?
Well, whilst the use of RAAC in public works (or at least schools) was apparently halted in 2001, cheap, low-quality building materials remain a popular for the construction of residential property today. Indeed, one manufacturer boasts that aircrete blocks – a different form of aerated concrete not to be confused with RAAC – can help builders more easily comply with the very latest building regulations.
Even without that specific detail, the poor quality of many new-build properties is infamous. According to relatives who currently or previously practiced estate agency, the motto in the trade is that friends don’t let friends buy new-build.
But the point is that even if they aren’t immediately faulty, it’s impossible to imagine buyers in 2123 fighting over a bog-standard property built in 1986. Today’s homes simply aren’t built to last that long. And that means that the RAAC scandal could be the early auger of (yet another) housing crisis, as millions of residential properties start coming to the end of their useful lives in the decades ahead.
This is a major problem in the public sector. But at least there the Government is on the hook for the costs. Moreover, the problem is concentrated on a smaller number of larger buildings, meaning that each repair or rebuild goes considerably further towards addressing the problem.
It will be very different when it’s hundreds of thousands, or more, individual residences and blocks of flats. It could end up being the cladding scandal, writ large over a much greater portion of the residential estate, with occupiers either on the hook for increasingly expensive patch-and-mend repairs or trapped in unsellable and increasingly unsuitable, even unsafe, habitation.
The natural target for the blame will be the developers, and a future government may try to pin the costs on them in the same manner as has Michael Gove over cladding.
But that will be much harder to do in this case, partly because many of the firms behind older houses may no longer exist but also because the costs of addressing structural problems will be vastly greater than switching out external panels. Remember that what really needs to happen to buildings at the end of their useful life is not renovation but demolition.
Nor would it be fair to allow politicians to wriggle off the hook. As that manufacturer notes, the use of aircrete is entirely in line with current building regulations (the evils of which we have discussed before). Indeed, they seem to actively incentivise its use.
More broadly, it is the politicians who have been content to preside over a planning system which bakes so many costs and uncertainties into the process of development, and has so restricted supply, that what houses do get built are supremely expensive even when cheaply built, and used initiatives such as Help to Buy to try and create a captive market for new-builds among struggling first-time buyers.
If we don’t want to repeat the sins of our post-war forebears, we need to return to building things to last, accepting higher up-front costs now in order to leave something worthwhile to our descendants, rather than deferred costs and decaying buildings.
For public works, a sensible reform might be changing how we cost buildings, taking account of the long-term savings incurred by building something that will still be standing in a hundred years rather than crumbling in fifty. For the private sector, it means a new set of building codes focused squarely on build quality and longevity – and cutting other development costs sufficiently to make building good homes economical.
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