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Labour's housing solution sees us return to the swinging sixties

I was once invited to give a talk about the 1960s, a period whereof I can claim first-hand experience.

But despite this apparent advantage, I soon found that the biggest problem I faced was deciding when the '60s actually began and when they ended - if indeed they ever did. A simple statement such as: 'The '60s were the years between 1960 and 1970' is clearly useless, if only because careers, fashions and ideas always transcend decades and regularly re-emerge after periods of neglect. Thus it is better to be like a pilot flying blind who relies utterly on his instruments, and say something uncontentious like: 'The '60s was the space between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Yom Kippur War.' Which might not win any prizes but at least has the advantage of being chronologically true and even illustrative in a way.

At the beginning of the 1960s, the 1956 Suez campaign was a much closer event than the Falklands War is to us today, while the destruction wrought by the bombing attacks of the Second World War was still evident on every side, especially in London, and 24 months conscript duty in the armed forces was the lot of every 18-year-old male.

In short, while the country was not actually at war, in many respects it had remained mobilised, with many pretensions of readiness for a final 'Cold War'conflict with the Soviet Union that mercifully never came. As far as architects were concerned, this mixed economy was curiously productive in a disaster/opportunity situation kind of way. The persistence of building licencing and the shortage of almost all conventional building materials had led, in the immediate aftermath of the war, to a period of experimentation and development without parallel in the field of low-cost construction.

Through the latter part of the '60s - 1964 to 1970 - the UK was ruled by a Labour government in Britain's last pre-computer period and first supersonic period. This is part of the history of the '60s, but even more so is the fact that a previous Labour government had been in power from 1945 to 1951 when it had been confronted by the most serious housing crisis of the century - a time when very little new housing had been built for six years and 750,000 dwellings had been either destroyed or rendered uninhabitable as a result of war-time bombings and missile attacks.

Desperate times attract desperate measures, and did, both in the election of a Labour government in place of the expected Churchill administration and in the measures taken to resolve the post-war housing crisis. In retrospect, it is clear that the election of a socialist government and the adoption of prefabrication as the solution to the housing crisis were political phenomena. From the outset both measures undermined the capitalist housing market and reinforced the growing local authority subsidised rental sector. Had it not been for the dollar convertibility crisis that led to the de-prioritisation of Labour's long-term housing strategy in 1947, the foundations of a nationalised prefabricated housing industry might have been laid by 1960. Instead, the whole project had to wait for 13 years until Labour regained power, when it returned in the guise of the 1965 National Plan which proposed annual 5 per cent increases in housing output so as to achieve as many as 500,000 houses a year by 1970, with 100,000 of them 'system built', in other words 'prefabricated'.

So when we read sceptically in today's newspapers that another Labour government has given the go-ahead to build 500,000 new houses in the South East, we should all remember that Labour and prefabrication go back a very long way.

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