A brief history of housebuilding

How we moved from huts to houses July 12, 2016 / Isla MacFarlane
A brief history of housebuilding

As the FMB celebrates its 75th birthday, we take a (brisk) walk through the history of housebuilding, looking at some of its defining moments.

The first big innovation in housebuilding came with the Romans, when they marched into Britain in 43 AD bringing with them concrete, jointing mortar and a blueprint for central heating. Unfortunately, they took these inventions with them when they marched back out in 410 AD. Britain did not see cement again until the 19th century.

The first building regulations came out of the ashes of the Fire of London. After flames nearly swallowed the city whole in 1666, the London Buildings Act was passed in 1667, and remains the biggest influence on building construction regulation some 350 years later.

It took a second tragedy to prompt further reform. Poor sanitation in London led to a cholera epidemic which claimed the lives of 43,000 people between 1832 and 1866. Public health began to prick the Victorians’ social conscience, and led to the 1878 Building Act.

From the 1870s up until the first German bombs landed on Britain, the country enjoyed its first housebuilding boom. Thanks to massive advances in technology and a drive to improve lives of the poor, the Victorians and Georgians left a legacy of some 5 million houses, many of which are still lived in today.

At the end of the First World War, determined to banish the shadow of the workhouse from modern working class homes, David Lloyd George promised a ‘land fit for heroes’ when he passed the 1919 Housing Act. The Act promised subsidies for local authorities to build 500,000 council houses within three years. Unfortunately, Britain ran out of money before even half that number could be built.

The Housing Act of 1930 finally swept away the slums, and granted councils more money to re-home their inhabitants. This single act led to the building of 700,000 new homes. With plenty of money, land and labour housebuilding peaked at 350,000 a year in the mid-1930s. It was Britain’s ongoing investment in housebuilding that ultimately stabilised the economy and shielded it from the brunt of the Great Depression.

As the Blitz intensified across Britain in 1940, 15 builders met in Islington, not far from the site of the greatest damage in the east end of London. Small construction firms had little representation at the time, and urgently needed financial and legal advice on how to tackle emergency repairs to bomb-damaged property. That meeting led to the formation of the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) in 1941, today the largest trade association in the UK construction industry.

Town planning came of age in the late 1940s, after the 1946 New Towns Act established an ambitious programme for building new towns. Stevenage, in Hertfordshire, was the first new town created under the Act, with 10 others following by 1955. An end to rationing and a growing economy spurred a boom in council housebuilding, with 250,000 local authority homes being built a year.

During the 1960s and 1970s, more homes were being built than at any other time in British history. Unfortunately, about a quarter of these were residential tower blocks that were destined to become vertical slums.

Fast forward a few boom and bust cycles and we arrive at today, with a chronic shortage of houses and some of the smallest being built in Europe. Forget designer bathrooms and showpiece kitchens, what home owners in the UK really crave today is simply more space, according to new research from the Federation of Master Builders.

Brian Berry, Chief Executive of the FMB, said, “Our members are the smaller independent and often family-owned companies that provide the backbone of the home improvement industry in this country. Since the organisation was formed to give small builders the chance to help rebuild Britain after WWII, the work of our members has reflected the changing nature of customer demand.

“Installing inside toilets and central heating might have been the aspiration of home owners in the 50s and 60s but now the focus is firmly on the need to increase space.”

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