Absolutely prefabulous: Built to solve the postwar housing crisis, the much-maligned 'temporary' home is now an urban icon. Esther Oxford reports

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The Independent Culture
Maureen Banks, 69, lives in a mock-Tudor 'cottage'. She has a fountain in her back garden and a gnome village in the front. When she lies in bed she can see a horse and a field through her window. (She can also see an estate in the distance and a new block of flats, but she does her best to block those out.) 'This place is an inner-city haven,' she says. 'I don't care what people say about prefabs being a temporary housing solution. To me this is my home.

I've never been so content in my life.'

Mrs Banks's home is one of a row of prefabs on Ivydale Road in Southwark, south London. The borough has 70 others like it. But, says Allen Macpherson, neighbourhood office manager, in an ideal world it would have none.

'These buildings were thrown up as emergency measures following the war to replace bomb-damaged homes,' he says. 'They were only meant to last 10 years.'

But if they became home to the people who live in them, to architects and historians, prefabs are fast becoming cultural icons.

Last month, London's Imperial War Museum decided it would preserve a Peckham prefab - fireplace, sink unit, back door, the lot - by removing it from 135 Kirkwood Road (just round the corner from Mrs Banks) and re-erecting it at the museum.

Since then, Birmingham council has decided to list 17 prefabs in Wake Green Road as buildings of 'archaeological and historical interest'. The chair of Birmingham's planning committee, Councillor Stewart Stacey, says they are 'a well-loved part of our history', and are being preserved to 'remind future generations of both the hardships and resourcefulness brought about by the war'.

Vera, Ivydale Road's oldest resident, thinks they have all gone batty. Vera, 65, has lived in her prefab since the beginning. When the Temporary Housing Act of 1944 was passed, empowering the government to spend pounds 150m on emergency accommodation, she was told that hers would be one of 150,000 families to benefit.

Her home was to be released from the factory as a kit. She was told that its 2,000 components could be slotted together within days. Vera was thrilled.

Young mothers had become used to the rented rooms, shared kitchens and tin bathtubs of wartime. All of a sudden she had an indoor lavatory, a fridge, hot water, fitted cupboards, two bedrooms and a plot of land large enough on which to grow fresh vegetables.

Forty years on she still has her original Butler sink, fridge and fitted cupboards. Her husband has died and her two sons have gone, but still she stays on, keeping the spare room ready should anyone want to visit. The council would prefer it if she left, but Vera has no intention of doing so.

'I brought up my family in this home,' she says. 'I'll never let it go.'

Southwark council hopes she will. It has 70-odd prefabs left and is keen to dispose of them to make way for new projects.

'Some of the prefabs are dilapidated and costly to heat,' says Mr Macpherson. 'And they take up too much land.'

Councils in Glasgow and Grimsby are also trying to persuade prefab residents to pack up and leave.

'We've found money to modernise 39 of our 216 prefabs, but the rest are to be phased out,' says Bob Livermore, assistant director of housing at Grimsby Borough Council. 'Most still rely on coal fires for their heating. The asbestos walls are also a problem.'

Other prefabs were better constructed. They are the ones built of brick or aluminium. For the aluminium-walled prefabs, modernisation, at a cost of pounds 28,000 per unit, is now taking place. But for those who live in 'condemned' prefabs the exodus is slow: only 40 residents have been re-housed since March.

Southwark council has been more brutal than Grimsby in its clear-out. A new rule has been introduced: any building needing more than pounds 1,000 of repairs will be demolished.

Residents on Ivydale Road have taken this to heart. Demands for new fences have been put on hold; claims for new roofs have been abandoned in favour of making do with a new coat of waterproof paint on the roof.

Only Mrs Banks, in her mock-Tudor 'cottage', can afford to make demands.

Five years ago she bought her 'cultural icon' for pounds 17,640 so that she could keep it for ever.

She hasno interest in the historical legacy of her prefab: out went the Butler sink, old fridge and post-war bath and in came her own interpretation of 'pop' culture: Tudor- style wooden beams and a concrete grotto in the back yard.

Her husband of 47 years was also consigned to history ('I divorced him. I don't want to talk about it - it's just too painful'). But her 45-year-old- daughter, Georgina Marshall, has come home. She moved in to the prefabricated house next door four months ago. 'She has always loved it here,' says her mother. 'And, like I told her, apples never fall far from the tree.'

(Photographs omitted)

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