Nicholas Mayes

Will we learn to love our ugly houses?

What are the root causes of Britain’s housing crisis? The Philosophers’ Mail – which has copied the format of MailOnline but I suspect is not aiming at quite the same demographic – recently offered an alternative to the usual explanations. That most people are opposed not to building more houses, but to building ugly houses, and that this accounts for most of what we dismiss as a nimbyism that prevents much-needed development. As they put it:

‘Most of the large housing developments built in the South East of England in the last 25 years share one common and (in this context) generally undiscussed feature: they are very ugly. Or, to be more precise, they are far uglier than the countryside they have replaced.’

There’s a lot to be said for this line, but it raises the unsettling possibility that our denunciation of these building styles as visually unappealing might not be an immutable verdict. What if, though we revile their blandness and uniformity now, they one day become fashionable? What if we come to see their misuse of space and energy not as condemnably inefficient but as commendably eccentric? What if we eventually conclude they’re a charming and cosy part of our national furniture?

There are certainly precedents for this. Recall the outcry when John Prescott tried to demolish almost 100,000 houses on Victorian brick terraces in the north of England: residents, heritage groups and opposition parties united to block most of his plan. Yet Orwell, in Manchester en route to Wigan Pier, wrote of such streets that ‘nothing is needed but to tear down these abominations’, while J.B. Priestley, in his 1934 English Journey, had this to say about Gateshead:

‘The whole town appeared to have been carefully planned by an enemy of the human race.

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