The curse of Mr Barratt

Building low-cost homes, particularly on greenfield sites, has always provoked snobbish opposition.

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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 dec ades of being ignored as an electoral issue it is back on the radar.

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 housebuilders 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.

The suburban Barratt home is again being demonised because of a partial reversal of the policy, introduced in the John Major era, of prioritising brownfield sites for housebuilding. Following the recommendations of the 2004 Barker report, the government is easing restrictions on greenfield building. But the amount being proposed is minuscule compared with the inter-war era. In the four counties next to London (Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey), the housing stock more than doubled between 1918 and 1940.

At its peak, private housebuilding created 288,000 houses a year in Britain in 1934-35, a figure not even approached since then. Max Hastings, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, accuses the government of trying to "concrete huge tracts of countryside" with "featureless contemporary Lego blocks". But most of today's housebuilding consists of piecemeal infilling in towns and villages in dispersed locations. In August the government even suggested that a million new homes could still be built on brownfield land.

The SixtyK house

The spectre of endless, identikit Noddy boxes swamping the countryside is mirrored by a complementary phenomenon: the voguishness of the urban terrace. The developer Urban Splash is renovating the red-brick terraced houses of Chimney Pot Park in Salford - Coronation Street land - by redesigning the interiors but leaving the façades untouched. Armed with tents and sleeping bags, prospective buyers queued up for days to buy these still unfinished houses last April. Urban Splash explained unnecessarily that "there is a bit of an emotional pull in the thought of a terraced house".

But in 1909 the same Victorian terraces were condemned by the town planner Raymond Unwin as "endless rows of brick boxes, looking out upon dreary streets and squalid backyards". In a bestselling 1946 book about housing, Alan Jarvis juxtaposed a picture of terraced houses with a row of Nazi storm troopers filmed from the same angle, the caption arguing that "we associate uniformity with everything that is inhuman, impersonal, formalised and monotonous". Now the classical uniformity of the terrace seems to inspire a deep emotional attachment, albeit a postcode-dependent one. We love terraced houses for the same reason that we hate Barratt homes: in a conservative market place, we prefer the "real" past to its ersatz imitation. The most remarkable feature of the British housing market has been its resistance to globalised consumerism, and its failure to modernise building in the way that the Levittowns - mass housing estates, built from the late 1940s onwards in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey - did in the United States. What was so odd about those Barratt helicopter adverts was that British housebuilders rarely sell their wares on television. They tend to advertise locally, stressing their native expertise and craftsmanship.

Like Levitt & Sons, Barratt in the 1980s tried to make housebuying as simple as buying a car. All first-time buyers needed to bring, said the brochures, was the tableware and the bedclothes. But there is a deep-seated British bias against this idea of the house as simply another consumer product, which is why new houses have to pretend to be old. British houses are scarce enough and expensive enough to produce aesthetic inertia, based on a series of unspoken assumptions about what a "house" looks like. Most buyers are compelled to have conventional tastes because they are paying so much and have to think about resale.

The technology of British housebuilding also remains old-fashioned, slow to adapt to the prefab methods pioneered by Levitt. The kind of modular, off-site building now common in America and Japan is a small cottage industry in Britain. A recent Commons select committee report on housing policy, which worried that more greenfield building could produce "urban sprawl", also raised concerns about the poor design of prefabricated housing and its "mortgageability". The prefab SixtyK house, plonked in the middle of Bloomsbury in May for the display of winning entries to John Prescott's affordable housing competition, is still a tiny drop in an ocean of bricks.

Since Thatcherism virtually destroyed public housebuilding, the poorest buyers have been abandoned to a housing market that neither produces enough houses nor functions well as a market. For de Botton, our attraction to retro house styles is part of our search for the false consolations of a simpler, more authentic life - a desire to compensate for being "unrustic in our souls". But whatever the state of our souls, it is the state of the market that decides how many homes get built and what they look like. With housing, aesthetics is always a political issue.

Joe Moran lectures at Liverpool John Moores University