'Palaces for the People' in peril despite UK prefab revival

LONDON (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.


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.


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 modernize 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 neighborhood.

“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 symbolizes 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.”