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Glass action

The great tenure blindness of the country’s terraces is disappearing again

Identical houses, built in a row, over time acquire individuality. Look at any Victorian terrace and you see this miracle in action. Front doors and windows change, front gardens become lush (good) or vanish entirely under concrete or brick (bad), and it’s quite remarkable what paint and non-original roof tiles will do. But the fronts of housing terraces are as nothing compared to the backs, where an entirely different townscape emerges.  Planners are relatively strict about what alterations are allowed on the streetfronts: they really don’t care tuppence about what happens on the back, barring over-building.

It’s odd in a way, given that occupants of such streets probably spend more time looking out the back than the front. There, you are mostly looking at the planning free-for-all of everyone’s back extensions.  It’s an alternative, ad-hoc world of grafted construction, ranging from dodgy concrete-block-and-corrugated-plastic outhouses and huge sheds to the full widescreen architect-designed, bifold door appendage.  Because if there’s a garden, then you must be able to see it all at once, constantly, right?

If planners are so relatively relaxed about the backs of houses but not at all relaxed about the fronts, it’s because streets are public and gardens supposedly private. It’s as if your eye was somehow meant not to wander beyond the strict confines of your larch-lap fencing. We all know this is not the case but it is a fiction we mostly go along with because, actually, we rather like such variety and the knowledge that we can do it ourselves.  And that feeds into the national obsession with house prices, enhancing value and so on. Our houses become our pension pots.


If the social housing element is indistinguishable from free-market homes then, given decent design and management, harmony ensues

But not all houses in these streets of ‘identical’ houses are privately owned. One of the glories of the terrace as a building type is that a house occupied by rich folk worth lots of money can sit right next to the same type rented out by a council or housing association. Traditional streets are tenure-blind and, as we know, that’s an ideal to aim for in new developments. If the social housing element is indistinguishable from free-market homes, then, given decent design and management, harmony ensues. Whereas council estates of the past looked so unlike the private estates, they visually reinforced class differences.

But the class difference has returned to the street, thanks to replacement windows. Here’s what happens. Money moves into a street. The money rips out the plastic and aluminium windows of its misguided predecessors and puts back proper timber sliding sashes and front doors, so adding capital value. That’s one lot of skips.

Meanwhile another lot of skips in the street is filling up with the original timber sashes being ripped out of the housing association homes. These are replaced with plastic windows that meet energy-efficiency targets, so reducing heating bills for tenants as cheaply as possible.

Thus the street has ceased to be tenure-blind. It’s not about individuality any more. Class system signifiers are re-established: timber vs plastic, private vs public, owner vs renter. Funny old world, eh?