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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Is the average house in Britain really so bad?

Patrick Crozier, over at his occasional “when he’s not thinking about trains” blog, asks: Why are modern houses so bad? Like him I don’t want to blame capitalism at all and do want to blame it all on socialism, but find the matter to be somewhat more complicated than that.

I can’t say too often how much I like the way that Patrick Crozier writes what he really thinks, rather than merely booming forth with arguments that he personally doesn’t quite accept, but which other people, being inferior idiots, might. He is, in short, honest. It’s only when you read someone like him that you realise how much pro-free-market rhetoric is of the other kind. And because Patrick isn’t merely trying to persuade, but to tell the truth as he truly thinks it, he is actually far more persuasive, because when he has a definite opinion (like his UKTransport mantra: Accidents Are Bad For Business) you know that he means it.

Patrick hints with deliberate lack of confidence at a few possible answers to his question. He mentions our obsession with home ownership (tax induced, although he doesn’t mention that), which is something I touched on here, long ago, saying pretty much the following:

Perhaps it’s our obsession with home ownership. As I understand it, in 1914, the vast majority of people rented. So, you had a cadre of experienced landlords who knew what to look for. In such an environment contractors had to be very careful to do a good job or else they would miss out on repeat business.

Patrick also mentions the problem of planning permission. I’m losing count of the number of libertarians who’ve told me that they consider this to be one of the great unchallenged unfreedoms of Britain now, and who promise that they’ll write something about it, generally something about abolishing it, Real Soon Now. Presumably they’ll all be elaborating on sentiments like these:

For instance that major housebuilders are firstly machines for obtaining planning permission and only secondly builders of houses. I also toy with the idea that because of planning controls, the market for property is so tight that people are prepared to buy almost anything.

Those points both sound right to me, and here are a couple more thoughts.

First, might part of the decline of the average house be a statistical matter? What I have in mind is that before about 1910 (the date from which Patrick dates the decline) very few people actually lived in this house. Quite a few lived in nicer houses. And many, many more lived in much nastier ones. And the ones living in the nastier old houses were cheap to hire, hour after hour, to slave away at making the materials for and doing the building of those nice old houses, hence all that nice brickwork and carpentry in the nice old houses.

To put it another way, what Patrick may really be doing is to point out that the really nice houses of yesteryear are nicer than the average ones of now, which must be built with much more expensive labour, earning average-or-above wages instead of low wages. That the average house now is pretty poor compared to what it might be is still a great pity, I do agree, and by capitalism’s standards this is a big disappointment. Could do better. But maybe it’s not quite so scandalous and puzzling as Patrick makes out.

How often does Patrick canvass in really posh but newly built suburbs, in places like Weybridge and in counties like Surrey, where I grew up? There you will surely find thousands upon thousands of really very fine new places, surely a lot better built than those “average” new houses he’s complaining about.

Also, bear in mind that older, very nice houses were big because they needed to include servants’ quarters. Now, the average house also has servants, but being mechanical these need far less space. There, capitalism has definitely done the business.

And the other general point I’d make is that the impact of the “Modern Movement” in architecture, which Patrick hints at via his complaints about the high rise, state inflicted housing horrors of the sixties and seventies, is a huge, huge subject, and central to all this. Our country is still littered with the failed solutions imposed by this huge folly, comparable in its damage to our country (and to many others) with the impact of the Second World War, not just in the form of idiotic and hideous buildings, but in the form of institutional and political follies, which persist despite the assumptions behind them having been long revealed as absurd, like … planning permission.

When I’ve got my fixed price adsl connected, and when I’ve got Brian’s education blog up and running, and if I still have a life left after all that what with carrying on writing stuff for this, then I’ll also start another blog called (something like – suggestions please) Brian’s art, architecture and design blog. Then we can all take the Modern Movement to the cleaners. Although I suppose Perry would say: why wait? Do it here.

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