The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Sir Lawrie Barratt

by Peter Ruback and Christine Whitehead

Sir Lawrie Barratt was the best-known and most successful volume housebuilder of his time. While his homes may not all be great architecture, the sheer number that he built (over 300,000 in the course of his career) has left an indelible mark on the country, and reflected the enormous move to home ownership of the last thirty years. From small beginnings in Newcastle, Barratt’s company grew to become the national market leader, overtaking George Wimpey to sell a record 16,500 houses in 1983.

So what gave him this opportunity for growth? He undoubtedly caught the mood of the times in the 1970s and 80s through his entrepreneurial approach to satisfying the rapidly growing owner-occupier market, and he also reaped success from major changes in economic and housing policy. Until the 1970s, owner-occupation was limited to those with a large deposit and a secure income – and builders concentrated on this middle to upper income range. Financial deregulation opened up home-owning to a new set of buyers. While their parents had probably rented from the local authority or a private landlord, they could now for the first time access mortgage finance. In the 1980s the Thatcher government’s Right to Buy initiative for council tenants also sent a strong signal about the benefits of home ownership compared with renting. Barratt’s contribution was to build for this new starter-home market, not only easing access to finance but also selling homes like consumer products through the innovation of on-site show-houses. Aspiring home buyers were also helped up the property ladder – seen as increasingly desirable because of rapid house price rises – by his part-exchange arrangements.

In the mid-1980s, a TV investigation found serious problems with the timber-framed construction method used in the firm’s low-cost houses. In response, Barratt directed the company’s focus upmarket to executive and retirement homes. His most famous sale followed, when the then Prime Minister and her husband bought a Barratt Home in a gated development close to Dulwich Common. In fact, they never actually took up residence in their twentieth century home, as on leaving Downing Street they moved to nineteenth century Belgravia.

Sir Lawrie Barratt, born 14 November 1927, died 18 December 2012.

Published May 2013