Now and then — David Rogers on the government’s endless efforts to get the industry to embrace modern methods

Some debates in the British construction industry just go on and on, decade after decade, without ever seeming to change. They are like plays in which the actors and props change, but the lines do not.

A case in point is prefabrication, which has been a continual preoccupation of the industry since the housing famine at the end of the Second World War. Open a copy of Building at any point in that period, and you’re more than likely to come across another performance.

The leading character (played by the government) is an anxious and rather ineffectual parent – the sort of part that Wendy Craig made her own. The background is always the same: money is too tight to mention and there is nowhere near enough housing to go around. The government therefore employs a mixture of patient lectures and craven bribery to get the industry to stop messing about with bricks and go and do a proper job with dimensionally co-ordinated, defect-free, standardised factory-assembled components.

Many ministers have played this role, but one of the greatest exponents was the late Geoffrey Rippon, minister of public building and works in the twilight of the Macmillan regime. His department was put together with the express purpose of pushing off-site manufacture.

Here he is in April 1963 addressing a conference on “industrialised building” at the Civic Trust’s offices.

“Industrialised building is a phrase that I regard simply as a convenient shorthand for the wide variety of techniques that enable modern industrial methods to be applied to building. It involves the responsibilities not only of the building industry but of the associated professions. Industrialised building is, therefore, not as some people imagine, the mere substitution of prefabrication for traditional methods.”

Eliminate the grammar and we could be listening to John Prescott haranguing housebuilders at a site in the Thames Gateway – even the “modern methods” phrase is the same.

Not-so-modern methods: the Wates system – sixties style
Not-so-modern methods: the Wates system – sixties style

The government plays an anxious and ineffectual parent – the sort of part that Wendy Craig made her own

The characters played by the industry responded in different ways. Goody-goody local authorities “formed consortiums to pool their knowledge”, architects snarled, some contractors such as Wates, launched their own systems, while the rest got on with doing business in the bad old way, comforted by the knowledge that the fewer houses and flats they erected, the more likely they were to sell them.

After a series of farcical or tragic events, the end result was always the same: the percentage of prefabricated dwellings in Britain remained at 1%.

Which is a shame, really. If there ever was a time when change was in the air, it was probably 1963. After all, this was when a new Britain was being forged in the white heat of a technological revolution, as Harold Wilson put it.

Catching the mood, Building talked enviously about the technical sophistication of French prefabrication, and made in-depth investigations into innovations such as “large panel systems”, then ran stirring leaders calling for the conversion of shipyards into factories where “a new national tradition is there for the making”.

The result was that an industry figure called Kenneth Campbell could tell a collection of building technicians that “the swing towards industrialised building based on factory production lines is now definite”, and “that many of our largest contracting firms have taken up licence rights to Continental prefabrication systems”.

Unfortunately Mr Campbell then spoiled the effect by adding that “in spite of the flood of publicity, conference, statement, speeches and articles, actual production has not yet really begun.”

And when it did, one large panel system block of flats called Ronan Point promptly killed off the idea of “industrial building” forever, as well as four of its inhabitants …