Build, build, build

June 21, 2024 2 Comments

It began with an act of destruction, the demolishing of an existing house.  Then came the tractors, carting trailer-loads of earth away.  Hundreds of loads, over many weeks, if not months.  The result: a very large hole in the ground.  Next, the concrete.  Huge trucks, loaded with long pipes, started arriving.  Workers assembled the pipes into a tall hydraulic arm or boom, like an inverted U.  They pressed a button and pumped hundreds of tons of liquid concrete, up and then down, into the site.  Then came the incessant din of machinery – drilling, mixing, spreading, pounding, smoothing.  Still the hunger for concrete wasn’t satisfied. The trucks returned and the process was repeated, several times.

And all this even before anything has appeared above ground level.  Because this is project on a big scale.  It’s not a public construction project, to benefit everyone.  Nor a project to build (truly) affordable homes to ease the housing crisis that’s been worsening for decades.  No, this is a project to satisfy the whim of a single wealthy individual.

Fishbourne Roman palace: reconstruction

Mr Big already has a large house, complete with indoor swimming pool, heated all year round.  But that isn’t nearly enough.  It’s absolutely necessary to add an extension: a large underground car park for several vehicles; a car-lift (a ramp won’t do); a two-storey annex with accommodation; a basement gym; and a tennis court.

Neighbours raised objections at the time when Mr Big asked for planning approval.  Construction would be noisy and disruptive.  Much worse, the work would destroy green space and cover it with expensive, wasteful concrete and tarmac, at a time when the Council had declared a climate emergency, and when biodiversity loss is becoming disastrous.  This argument, though, cut no ice with the planners.  Environmental catastrophe is what economists call an ‘externality’, an irrelevance to be discounted in making planning decisions.  The same is true of the other major objection, the waste of money.  (Suppose the government were to tax Mr Big’s wealth at the rate he deserves; how many houses could be built for homeless people?)  Another ‘externality’.

Cupid and dolphin mosaic, Fishbourne

Ostentation and extravagance in house-building is nothing new, of course.  Historically, Britons seem to have been particularly prone to ‘extension fever’.  A much earlier Mr Big – possibly Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus or, more likely, the British-born Roman governor Sallustius Lucullus – built the biggest Roman palace north of the Alps at Fishbourne in Sussex between AD 60 and AD 80.  It had no less than four residential wings, with central heating, colonnades, formal gardens and a bath suite.  Decorations included mosaic floors, wall paintings, stucco mouldings and polychrome marble panels.  Even that wasn’t enough.  In the middle of the second century the bath suite was demolished and replaced by a new one, and new residential quarters were added, with extravagant new mosaics.  A hundred years later yet more extensions were built.


Another example, closer to home.   Two and a half centuries ago, the chief Mr Big in Wales, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn, 4th Bart, decided that Wynnstay, the large classical mansion he’d inherited from his dad on the banks of the Dee, was really too poky and second-rate for his taste.  He used a Scottish architect called James Byers in around 1770 to design a brand-new set of buildings, to replace, and massively extend, the existing house.  No expense would be spared.  It didn’t have to be, since Sir Watkin owned much of north Wales and was by far the richest man in the country.  Byers produced some handsome plans, which included a huge concert hall with a grand staircase (Sir Watkin was a man of refined culture).

But the plans were never realised.  Instead, Wynn chose to build in London, where he had a second home, and engaged Robert Adam in 1772 to design a new house at 20 St James’s Square (he naturally demolished the old one).  The construction took three years – two of the workmen were killed in accidents – and Wynn celebrated moving in by holding a musical breakfast, with country dances below stairs (he also kept a cow in St James’s Park).  The house was splendidly decorated and included a music room, with organ.

Staircase, concert hall, Wynnstay (James Byers)

You could list hundreds, thousands of similar extreme cases of construction cupidity.  Why does such behaviour seem so much more dubious today than in the days of Lucullus or Sir Watkin?  Because we’re beginning to understand now that we can’t continue to deplete the earth’s finite resources as carelessly as we do.  At least, not without endangering the two things that make our existence possible – a human-friendly climate, and the lives of the other living things we share the planet with, and on whom we depend.

Somehow, then, we need as a society to curb the hyper-acquisitive appetites of our current generation of Mr Bigs.  And as well as being content with what we have, if we have enough to keep us going, we need to question the whole concept of economic growth, at least growth in the sense of ever greater personal consumption, at the expense of the interests of others.  Instead of growth, we should concentrate on redistributing existing wealth.  That offers people hope of better houses and living, without ruining our one collective home.

Sir Watkin Williams Wynn

The Labour Party’s general election manifesto, published last week, says it will improve public services by ensuring growth, rather than by taxing wealthy companies and individuals.  The practical difficulties with this approach are obvious.  Can a government will growth into being?  Can growth happen soon enough to save the NHS from total collapse?   But it also makes the unquestioned assumption that consumer growth is automatically desirable.  Doesn’t accelerated growth collide with another (much reduced) Party aim, that of a greener Britain?

Within a year, maybe, Mr Big’s extension will be finished.  At first, he’ll be proud and satisfied.  After a work-out at his gym and a game of tennis, he’ll be ready to bring up his car from deep below and display it on the road to the less fortunate. 

But I like to imagine him in a few years’ time, as he rises wearily from the computer screens showing CCTV images of his heavily defended demesne. Doubts are beginning to gnaw at his mind.  Why do I feel no happier? he wonders.  Do I really need more stuff all the time?  Or the admiration of others for my fine buildings and fast cars?  Could I be known and remembered for more socially useful activity?  Could I retire as Mr Big and make do with being Mr Average?

Comments (2)

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  1. Richard Saville says:

    Good luck in your relations with Mr Big! Maybe he could be persuaded to contribute to the local school/ choir/sports club/medical centre? And he might get pleasure from it.

  2. Hywel Davies says:

    Diolch yn fawr iawn, eto, Andrew! Geiriau doeth – pryder enbyd taw cyn lleied yw’r call sy’n gwrando.

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