Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: Homes shouldn’t be dreams... they’re a basic necessity of life

Prefabs were the answer last time we had a major housing shortage

Prefabs were the answer last time we had a major housing shortage - Credit: Archant

How did we get to this point? Four out of five couples, according to recent news, cannot now afford to buy a house. It’s a strange age we live in, where 1,600 homes may be built and no-one bats an eyelid, whereas when 16 “affordable” homes get the go-ahead, it’s somehow remarkable.

At Great Bentley for instance, a Tendring councillor, Lyn McWilliams, had to struggle valiantly for 18 years, until eventually, a dozen sorely-needed affordable homes were built in nearby Aingers Green. During that time, thousands and thousands of – should we call them non-affordable? – homes went up all over the region. What skewed value system permits such a situation?

The recent news, shorthand for the bottom two rungs of the housing ladder having been removed, has elicited some strange political responses. According to Emma Reynolds, the shadow housing minister: “Unless we build many more homes, working people will be denied their dream.”

“Dream?” This is the tremulous response of a TV reality show participant. A home shouldn’t be a “dream”. It’s an absolute social necessity – right up there with water, food, warmth and an income.

Whenever I am trying to understand the nature of some modern conundrum, it’s my habit, not to scry into the future but instead to re-examine the past. Usually I don’t even have to go very far back in order to shed some light on the problem.

One of the worst housing crises of the past century ensued after the last world war. As a result of severe housing shortages at that time, governmental blind eyes were often turned to people living in huts, tents, old railway carriages and on boats. The latter was the case, I have sometimes heard, in Wivenhoe, where a group of people remained living afloat for some years after the war.

Farther up the coast, Jaywick, originally built as a kind of holiday village in the early 1930s by the entrepreneur Frank Stedman, became a rather more permanent settlement. In London, a squatters’ collective, comprised of people who having fought a war, were understandably dismayed to find themselves homeless, occupied a number of vacant buildings in central London.

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Under a police blockade, the squatters’ sympathisers supplied them with food, passing items in through the open windows. The Ealing comedy classic Passport to Pimlico is loosely based on that now almost-forgotten dispute.

The post-war housing crisis, was followed by a huge building programme. During the six or seven years after the war, 1.2 million new houses were built. Of these, almost 157,000 were prefabs – an initiative of Winston Churchill’s. Prefabs, that is to say factory-built prefabricated houses were an interim solution meant only as a stop-gap for 10 years. Many lasted a good deal longer.

I happen to know that there were still a couple of them in Rectory Road, Wivenhoe, in the early 1980s. The prefabs, unlike many modern houses, also had gardens big enough for a vegetable patch. The government, possibly rather more elightened in those days, realised that after a hard day getting the country back on its feet. its workforce might need somewhere to lay its weary head,

When we talk about a housing “crisis” do we mean that there aren’t enough dwellings where people may live long-term? Or are we really talking about the more abstract concept, a ball and chain scenario of actually “owning” those dwellings?

A further element adding to our “crisis” is that rents have reached parity with mortgage payments. Not only did it used to be cheaper and easier to rent than to buy, it was also something which you might do for years, if not decades.

My grandparents rented the same terraced house for most of their adult lives.

Never mind being able to afford to buy a house, this country’s young working couples now struggle to afford to simply dwell in one. A home, I repeat, is a necessity not a dream. I have a friend in Germany whose family have rented their house from the local council for almost 200 years.

The Germans at 40% and the Swiss, at 38% have some of the lowest home-ownership figures in the developed world. Here in the UK we have some of the highest.

Although UK home-ownership has declined slightly, from its 2003 peak of 70% for now, it remains buoyant. The rental sector has burgeoned, however.

Overall it strikes me that our crisis here is not about a shortage of dwellings – walk around any pretty village at dusk and observe how many unlit (second) homes there are.

Our problem is a matter of perception. Is your property a home, or is it part of your investment portfolio?