Largest postwar prefab estate to be demolished

Campaigners say key piece of history will be lost after only six of 187 houses built by German and Italian PoWs listed

The UK's largest surviving estate of postwar prefab houses, described by conservationists as a unique slice of 20th-century social history, is set to be bulldozed and replaced by modern housing.

Only six of the 187 compact bungalows, erected from factory-built panels by German and Italian prisoners of war in 1945 and 1946, will be saved, after they received Grade-II listing last year. The remainder of the Excalibur estate in Catford, south-east London, will be demolished, along with its tin-roofed prefab church, St Mark's, believed to be one of a kind.

Campaigners say the planned redevelopment, formally approved by Lewisham council in September, will destroy a key piece of history from the aftermath of the second world war. The estate is the biggest surviving remnant of an ambitious project which saw 160,000 prefabs hurriedly erected during an acute housing shortage. Keeping just six, surrounded by hundreds of brand new houses and flats, would be pointless, they argue.

"This case shows a real gap in the historic protection legislation for 20th-century buildings," said Jon Wright from the Twentieth Century Society, which is urging English Heritage to step in and declare the entire estate a conservation area. "The overall planning and layout is far more important than just a few individual buildings. This is the only place in the country where you can still see an estate like this. It is very significant."

The local authority has long argued that the 55 sq metre (600 sq ft) houses, originally intended to last no more than a decade, are so basic it would be virtually impossible to bring them up to modern standards, a view shared by a number of residents, who are mainly council tenants.

But after a campaign by other locals to preserve the Excalibur, so called as the roads were named after characters from Arthurian legend, English Heritage recommended 21 homes be listed. The Department for Culture granted protection to six. Under current rules for 20th century properties, listing is reserved for buildings with few modifications while most Excalibur homes have – at the very least – replacement doors and windows.

English Heritage argued that the whole estate should be preserved by being named a conservation area. Officially, the organisation has the power to do this but is extremely wary of doing so against the wishes of the local council.

"It's a difficult situation," said a English Heritage spokeswoman. "Any conservation area would be administered by Lewisham and imposing our view from above would be quite drastic, particularly given the split of opinion among the residents."

But English Heritage was uncomfortable with the redevelopment, she added: "The estate is of huge historical significance overall, it's not just the individual listed properties. It will feel quite odd to just have a small group remaining, surrounded by modern houses. It would not be particularly rosy from a conservation point of view."

The Department for Culture said it could do no more. A spokesman said: "Apart from the listed houses, if it's the decision of the local authority to demolish the estate, that's pretty well it. It's local democracy and there's only so much central interference you can do."

Lewisham polled Excalibur residents earlier this year and 56% of them favoured redevelopment. The issue has polarised local opinion, with pro-conservation householders claiming a "yes" vote was inevitable as there was no prospect of the council spending money on modernising the prefabs, leaving tenants with a choice of accepting demolition or remaining in a damp, cold, outdated home.

For English Heritage the situation is reminiscent of the 60s and 70s when thousands of Victorian homes were demolished, dismissed as impossible to renovate for modern life.

"The difference is, there were still lots of Victorian buildings left but there are not many prefabs. It's possible that in 20 years' time people will think differently about them. But that's going to be too late for the Excalibur," said the spokeswoman.


Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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