Why were roads, schools, hospitals, and now new houses only built to last for 20 years?

I wonder if a characteristic of the last years of the industrial era was to avoid long-term thinking and planning.    These were not conscious decisions but a consequence of how the economy evolved in response to borrowing from the late 1960s onwards.

I can’t find any explicit decisions by the government to plan for only 20 years, but I can suggest why it was so.

In the post-World War II era, as nations embarked on massive reconstruction efforts to rebuild their infrastructure and houses, a prevailing mindset focused more on immediate needs rather than long-term sustainability.  This mentality led to constructing roads, schools, hospitals, and other critical structures with a life span of only around 20 years.  Several factors contributed to this phenomenon.

  1. The Urgency of Reconstruction: After the devastation of war, there was an urgent need to rebuild infrastructure swiftly to restore normality to people’s lives.  The primary concern was to address immediate needs such as housing, roads, education, and healthcare.  This urgency often resulted in adopting quick and cost-effective construction methods, sacrificing longevity for speed.
  2. Technological Limitations: The post-war era was not characterised by the advanced construction techniques and materials we have today.  Engineers and builders worked with what was available then, which sometimes meant using materials and methods that were not as durable as those used today or earlier.
  3. Economic Considerations: Many countries faced financial constraints after the war.  Governments had to prioritise spending on rebuilding efforts while managing other pressing issues such as unemployment and housing shortages.  As a result, there was often limited funding available for infrastructure projects, leading to compromises in quality and longevity.
  4. Changing Needs and Technologies: The post-war period was a time of rapid technological advancement and societal change.  As new technologies emerged and societal needs evolved, the infrastructure built immediately after the war quickly became outdated.  Rather than investing in long-lasting designs that might become obsolete within a few decades, decision-makers opted for more flexible solutions that could adapt to changing circumstances.
  5. Lack of Long-Term Planning: In the chaotic aftermath of war, long-term planning took a back seat to immediate needs.  Governments and planners were focused on addressing the most pressing issues of the day, often at the expense of considering the future sustainability of infrastructure projects.  As a result, many structures were built with a shorter lifespan, as long-term planning was not a priority.

While the decision to build infrastructure with a limited lifespan may have been pragmatic given the circumstances of the time, it has led to challenges in modern times.  Today, the UK faces the daunting task of upgrading, replacing and repairing infrastructure built in the post-war era to meet the needs of the growing 20th century.

The same short-term culture prevails today in building individual houses and estates with government-required heat pumps, ventilation and insulation with a lifespan of around 20 years.

In effect, most building projects since WW2 have been built to standards recommended by professional institutions, such as building regulations set by the government.

The advent of localism is an opportunity to do things differently.

Properly implemented localism must eliminate centrally regulated construction practices and allow homeowners and their builders to decide how and what to build.  Building design and construction can evolve with local standardisation as in former centuries.   Every cottage in my parish in Herefordshire was built over 100 years ago to an internal size of 20 ft by 12 ft.

It would then be up to individuals to decide whether to build for future generations or just for their lifetime.  A matter of individual needs and judgment: This solves the housing problems of those who can only afford to build sheds or others to extend their houses to accommodate elderly relatives or extended families.

Localism may take years to become a widespread culture, but there is no reason why it shouldn’t start when the disintegration of post-war construction becomes recognised.

Localist communities would then build their lanes, expecting to maintain them as often as needed.  More on hills, corners, and junctions than less hilly sections.

As they were in the past, schools and hospitals would be built for future generations.

We should not forget the rebuilding of railways built on foundations and with bridges over 150 years old.

It was almost as if the post-war roads and other constructions were built only to last until the end of industrialism when they would be no longer needed.