1 OCTOBER 1948, Page 8



THE destruction which France has suffered through repeated wars might have been expected to dull her people's traditional delight in good building. But in spite of all discouragement the French have retained their love for fine structures, and no visitor can fail to be impressed by the number and quality of those to be found in even the most inaccessible places.

In face of this undoubted love of structural beauty, the general condition of housing in France appears unaccountable. To find the reason for this curious state of affairs we must go back to the begin- ning of the First World War, when to relieve the anxiety of the fight- ing men and ease the burdens of their families, all house rents were pegged at a reasonable rate, which amounted to from 15 to 20 per cent. of the average tenant's income. Ever since that time, while all costs have steadily risen, these pegged rents have remained at the 1914 level, and now represent only 3 to 4 per cent. of the occupier's income.* A full generation has reached maturity knowing only these disproportionately low rents, and is, not unnaturally, averse to paying more. Rents that should be 3o,000 francs per year to give a fair return to the owner are pegged at about 4,coo francs. In conse- quence, the return on housing investments has dwindled tot per cent. or even less, and it is worth nobody's while to build houses to let. A further handicap is the high rate of taxation. A man can sell his motor-car or radio without involving himself in taxes, but if he sells a house he loses about a fifth of his profit on the trans- action. The situation has been aggravated by the decline in the French population, which in 1947 was 40,5oo,000, compared with 41,500,000 in 1913. By now one person in six is over 6o years of age, and inevitably, by the natural gravitation of money ownership, the greater proportion of capital capable of investment is possessed by the old people, who cannot be expected to undertake projects of great enterprise—particularly in housing, where the return they can expect is far below that yielded by other investments.

The trouble is not, in the main, a shortage of houses due to war- time destruction. France suffered less than might have been antici- pated as a result of bombardment and occupation. Her coast towns *A Bill adopted by the National Assembly at the end of August permits the increase of rents in certain areas on certain conditions. were certainly badly hit, and destruction followed the path of the fighting armies ; many bridges were blown up, and in most cases the buildings at either end disappeared with them. But it is astonish- ing how little real devastation occurred. The actual figures in dwelling units (one house equals if dwelling units) are :

Totally destroyed Damaged Urban 393,000


Rural 62,000 205,000 Total 455,000 1,719,000 Therefore, generally speaking, France is not under-housed. In 1936 she had 12,600,000 dwellings, with an average of 3.2 persons per dwelling. The real problem is the need to replace existing houses, for, owing to the small amount of building that took place between the wars, the average age of houses in the heart of prac- tically every large city is 65 years, many being over too years old, and few of them possessing any of those amenities considered essen- tial in most countries today. Such old and inconvenient houses can hardly Be attractive to the occupants ; in fact, the International Labour Review (Vol. 55) contends that in the centre of towns like Nantes, St. Etienne and Le Havre a struggle is bred between the attractions of such homes and those of the estaminet—in which the estaminet usually wins. The result is that in these districts some- thing like half the male deaths are said to be in some way con- nected with alcoholism. The same report considers that housing conditions are insanitary or unsatisfactory to a degree that is largely responsible for a serious increase in tuberculosis.

The seriousness of the situation is recognised by all thoughtful people, but the solution is not yet evident. During the war years no repairs or maintenance were carried on ; the Germans requisi- tioned all available material and labour to build their Atlantic Wall, and huge areas were sown with mines. Since 1945 there has been some preliminary reconstruction. Practically all first-class roads and many secondary ones have been restored, and large areas of mined land are now cleared, though there is still much of this to do. Hun- dreds of bridges have been repaired and large numbers of " dangerous structures " demolished. But little new building has been undertaken. By 1947 only 7,500 dwelling units had been rebuilt (figures for rural areas are not available, but obviously little had been done); 426,0co had been fully repaired, and 690,00o had received. first-aid repairs: In 1946 a five-year plan was drawn up which contemplated com- pletion of mine-clearance, demolition of dangerous buildings and repair of all that could be made habitable, and the building of half-a- million new houses, 30,000 of which were to be exclusively for the use of miners and 5,000 for iron and steel workers, both of which industries were causing industrial bottlenecks. This would be a beginning, but leading authorities like M. Alfred Saury are frankly not optimistic as to what will be achieved. M. Saury believes that to put the situation right about 4,000,000 new houses are needed over a period of ten years, and that the cost of this would absorb an eighth of the available investment capital of the whole country. Again, he estimates that to make a real housing campaign would require no less than 25,000,000 tons of coal in the preparation of material and its transportation in the first year alone. As this is half the total coal output for a year, it could not possibly be spared. Other materials also present difficulties. Timber is in short supply, and this has caused a serious shortage of pit-props. Steel and cement have been lacking, though there is now some improvement in cement.

Railways, some public authorities and industrial concerns have put up a certain amount of temporary housing, including hostels. The construction is good, based largely on ingenious wood-panel units of standard type, door and window panels being of the same size and easy to assemble. Elsewhere advantage has been taken of local materials, rough stone and concrete, etc., which are treated externally with stucco and quite presentable, though comparatively few such houses have been built. In any case, the individuality of the French as a nation is so marked that mass-produced prefabrica- tion of the sort which has aided post-war building in many countries is not regarded with much favour. A system of Government build- ing subsidies has been arranged, but this concession is hard to get. All exterior construction work needs permits, and though a fair amount of inside work is undoubtedly being carried out by owners it is for their own use, and the cost is very high.

- It will take a strong man to handle this situation with any hope of success, and he will have to make himself unpopular, for to ask people to pay much higher rents than they are used to will not arouse much enthusiasm. But if the job is not taken in hand within a reasonable time, France will occupy the unique position of com- bining numberless beautiful buildings of a monumental character with a general level of housing that is so unsatisfactory that sooner or later it will have a serious effect on the health and happiness of the nation.