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The nation must conserve its past – even prefabs

Post-war pre-fabs seem an unlikely case for preservation but they are part of our heritage and must be kept

I am at heart a real romantic with ridiculously old fashioned ideals. I don’t like pubs which are clinically clean or don’t serve pickled eggs. And I can’t abide all these American coffee shops where something called a mocha comes in a cardboard mug with a polystyrene lid.

And while on the subject I also don’t like my coffee arriving with a dollop of synthetic cream on top the size of an anthill.

So it lifts my heart to see that our heritage minister Barbara Follett has made a decision I wholeheartedly support.

After years of deliberation she has decided to list a number of single-storey prefabricated bungalows on Catford’s Excalibur Estate in south-east London. I know this place and while it’s not Belgravia, this decision is correct.

Many people, including Lewisham council, were opposed to these pre-fabs being listed but they all miss the point. We must preserve buildings that we will never build again.

After the Second World War 150,000 prefabricated houses were built with the tagline ‘homes for heroes’, none of which were designed to last more than 10 to 15 years.

They don’t comply with any modern day standards regarding insulation, heating or acoustics and all have flat felt roofs which leak.

Despite this the residents have fought for years to save them and now it seems they have won. Planning law and conservation have of course always been emotive subjects.

The Elephant and Castle area of south London is now little more than a road interchange overshadowed by 1960s concrete office blocks.

But back in the 1930s it was known as the Mayfair of south London until it was decimated by wartime bombing. Then in the 1980s most of the tower blocks were converted into flats.

I would give my Spearmint Rhino VIP pass to have been a fly on the wall in the meeting when a representative of English Heritage told the developers that as part of their forthcoming scheme of refurbishment all the original single-glazed, condensation ridden, metal-framed Crittall windows had to be retained.

And why? Because the buildings at Elephant and Castle are the best surviving examples of concrete curtain wall construction and as far as possible English Heritage wanted their appearance to be unaltered.

I may be wrong but I suspect the developers didn’t agree.

Before you condemn this as the world gone mad just reflect that back in the 1930s there was a very strong lobby to have Tower Bridge covered with Art Deco glass tiles because some people considered the bridge to be ugly. And in the 1970s there was an unsuccessful move to demolish a whole street of 18th century Huguenot houses in Spitalfields, east London for redevelopment.

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