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- Arts + Ents
Tuesday 27 May 1997
Home sweet home, for the golden family
Rising demand for housing is creating a building boom in the countrysid e. Jonathan Glancey visits St Michaels Mead, Hertfordshire and finds an estate fit for a fantasy of traditional living
In reality, the size and ambition of the adult home will vary with income, taste and way of life, yet as Mr Humber will tell you, the ideal is much the same for people up and down the country and up and down the salary scale. Just as well really, for experts are agreed that over the next 20 years up to 4.4 million new homes will be built in Britain to cope with the rising number of households, which is not the same thing as a rise in population. Eighty per cent of these new homes will be bought by single people, the "least predictable segment of the market", according to Mr Humber. By this he means that single people are no longer stereotypical bachelors and spinsters. Their ranks include single parents, those who have divorced, and many who have lovers, children and other dependents - all of whom will want a room of their own when sleeping over. "Single people are buying four- and five-bedroom houses," says Mr Humber, "so housebuilders would be unwise to invest in a spate of one-bedroom flats thinking this is the way the market's going. It isn't."
This might all be true, but it doesn't explain why the brochures handed out by Britain's leading housebuilders (a handful of whom dominate the market) stick to the dream of the gleaming family living in perfect harmony in their "unique" and "traditional" home, set among green fields and birdsong. The brochure I was given by a very nice sales lady at St Michaels (sic) Mead (any relation to Miss Marple's St Mary Mead?) - "a traditional new village community being created by Countryside Properties plc on the outskirts of the historic market town of Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire" (just look at these words, nearly every one heavily loaded) - is a celebration of the mythical golden family. The hunky blond husband in New Labour weekend gear tosses his blonde, pony-tailed daughter, who sports pastel- coloured leisurewear, into the squeaky- clean air as a sparkling blonde wife lays a manicured hand lightly on his manly shoulder and grins with confidence.
Here's dad again, this time walking along a sunlit path in spotless sneakers, carrying one golden child on one arm, one on the other and a third on his broad shoulders. Not a splash of mud on the children's dungarees, much less a tear or pout on their angelic pink faces. They're on bicycles in a third picture. The son rides serenely on his brand-new bicycle, but his sister needs stabilisers (girls!) and dad, not a hair out of place, lends her a strong, guiding hand. Finally, we see the kids running across an immaculate lawn chasing a puppy which looks as if it might have been sponsored by Andrex; even the dog's blond.
Perhaps your family is exactly like the St Michaels family. Even if it isn't, they really must exist in these smart new traditional houses, each of which "complements and enhances the environmental quality of the area". Hundreds of acres of Green Belt land have been given up to build these new homes, so the least you would expect of the families moving in is that they are model citizens. I happen to know that they are: the extraordinary quietness that envelopes me at St Michaels Mead early on a weekday afternoon tells me so. Nothing stirs. The men - neat, clipped, fit, Aryan - have driven off to work in the glistening company Rover or BMW. The women - ever smiling, pert and competent - are out shopping at the Tesco superstore nearby, dreaming up exciting menus for hubby's supper (women!). The children are doing well at school.
Meanwhile, in this shrink-wrapped land, no birds sing. There are no animals. Flora is neatly docked and carefully tended. Well-mannered young men, employed by the developers, mow communal lawns, reducing them to crew-cut stubble. You feel it would be wrong to whistle or sing. You certainly wouldn't fire up a powerful motorbike here on a Sunday morning.
It's this enveloping silence that disturbs me as I arrive in a taxi from Bishop's Stortford station. I'm missing the city already. But I want to brave this out: urban bigot confronts the English dream in the guise of The Shropshire, a five-bedroom, double-garaged house at the heart of the estate. The Shropshire's a snip at pounds 179,950, especially when the price includes fitted Neff kitchen (fridge-freezer, dishwasher), a choice of fire surrounds and, for one week only, fully fitted carpets. It is exciting, this idea of turning the key in a Kentucky Fried Georgian fanlight door and entering a germ-free new house with no history, but ready and waiting for that golden family to move in.
I think The Shropshire must be hoping I will go away. "Please don't choose me," it seems to say. "I don't want a long-haired, Bohemian, beatnik type with a scruffy old mongrel in tow. I want a proper man who sports razor- sharp creases in his brand-new chinos. I want a golden retriever pup that will never grow old and bendy. I don't want an old Jag or a common motorbike in the garage. I want a virginal company car and a polished off-roader for weekends."
"Don't worry Shropshire," I whisper to the ideal family house of the future (a very traditional future), "I promise not to buy you. I'll scuttle back to the city where, in the shadow of St Paul's, I can hear blackbirds sing and watch urban foxes lift the EC1 dustbin lids in search of early breakfasts, and where the sound of market lorries and motorbikes gives way to church bells on Sundays.
For a few minutes, though, as I listen in rapture to the enticing sales spiel, I feel I too might want to be a part of the brave and Blairy world of gleaming families in brand-new houses. I'm sure I could if I gave in to a house like this. Just imagine
I have never owned a new car (the youngest is my current Jag, which is 10) and nothing like a new home (the youngest was built in 1860 in a late- flowering Italianate style). So naturally, I am awed by a home that has the smell of a new car and promises to run equally well. Yes, the windows are much smaller than in old, as opposed to new, traditional houses (something to do with insulation), and the plastic window frames are not quite like those of old-style historic houses (my 1715 sashes rattle in the wind and could never be described as air-tight). The swirly Artex ceilings are rather a whizz, but I'm not quite man enough for them, preferring my plaster plain. As for traditional deep-pile, wall-to-wall cream carpets, I know I would spill red wine or coffee on them as soon as look at them. No need to worry about soot, ash or scorch marks though; one of the best things about these new olde-worlde houses is that the chimneys are purely decorative. Nice.
An equally happy touch is the smart plastered finish given to the capacious garages. This is so you can adapt one of them into a playroom (kids!) or put in a workbench and get down to some serious DIY. Hubby could even take up a hobby, or build a model railway (men! just like boys, really).
It's no use, Shropshire. You're right. When it comes down to it, I don't understand you any more than you want me. I would prefer a timber shack on the edge of the wildest sea to this ersatz traditionalism, this centrally heated cocoon designed to shield sales-brochure families from an increasingly imperfect world.
My idiosyncrasies, however, don't mean a damn thing to Britain at large. Of those 4.4 million new homes, the vast majority will be variations on the theme of the Shropshire. They will be the Victorian semis of our day.
Of course they are not, despite the reassuring words of the material promoting them, in any way traditional. They are, beneath a veneer of Tudor beams and pseudo-Georgian details, as modern as a Ford Galaxy. They are rational, minutely costed structures on which a child's drawing of a home has been grafted. Not only are they not traditional, they are not particularly British. The vast new Hertfordshire estate I visited this week is based on north American city-edge prototypes. The sales blurb talks of villages, but St Michaels Mead and its many sibling estates have nothing in common with historic English villages. This makes sense: we have adopted American ways of living, from clothes to food, from the games we play to the words we say to the places we shop, and now the new traditional homes we are building.
There is no getting away from the fact that if we need (or is it want?) all these new homes, we will have to build on land that would otherwise be left green. It is very unlikely that a large percentage of these new homes will be built on "brownfield" sites on the fringe of twilight cities. Golden families (or the people who think they are) want greenery and space and cars and golf courses and safe schools and superstores. You can safely expect housebuilders to be steered away from the Green Belt where there is some room (redundant aerodromes, the grounds of former mental hospitals, land around edge-of-town retail centres), but the reality is that we can't have all the houses we want in the style we want ("new traditional") without gobbling up fields where birds once nested and poppies waved.
Those of us who question the wisdom of this relentless home-making in the old shires will always be a minority. Neither golden nor perfect, we should keep to our eccentric lairs in the city or huts by the sea-shore. Middle England might not be very English any more but it is on the rise, and, whether you like it or not, it will soon be spilling into the green fields of yore.
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