Building tycoon whose keenly priced homes sprang up all over the UK in the 70s and 80s
Sir Lawrie Barratt, who has died aged 85, built so many houses that, for good or ill, Barratt Homes became synonymous with the modern estates that sprang up across the country – and the countryside – to meet the demand for home ownership in the 1970s and 80s. To many he was the patron saint of the first-time buyer, studying the market, trimming the size of his dwellings to fit their finances, and introducing special prices, package deals and part-exchange to enable people to buy their homes. He was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite builder. She bought an upmarket version from him in Dulwich, though never lived in it.
To others he epitomised the charmless architect-free rash of uninspired and cramped brick boxes spreading across the countryside, at its extreme described by the Labour MP Willie Hamilton as “tomorrow’s slums”.
Barratt was both symbol and beneficiary of the move to home ownership that saw owner-occupation rise from a quarter of the population when he started in 1953 to close to two-thirds when he retired, and the number of houses double. He built his first house in 1953 at the age of 25, working on it himself with the help of skilled tradesmen. Born in Newcastle upon Tyne, the son of a power station engineer, he left school at 14 and worked as a clerk first for a mining company and then a law firm while studying accountancy at night school. Unable to afford the four-bedroomed house he wanted, he decided to design and build it himself. It cost £1,750 and was valued at £3,000.
He drew the conclusion and swiftly built two more nearby for sale. Then, in 1958, he linked up with a small local builder, Lewis Greensitt, to form a housebuilding company, which in 1963 became Barratt Developments. Greensitt left after the company was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1968.
Barratt was hands-on. He designed the houses, bought the land and dealt with the tradesmen. In later years he had helipads constructed at his major sites so he could check on progress. “No one in a subsidiary comes to see me,”he remarked, “I go to their patch.” But above all he was a great salesman, with the mantra: “You have got to work backwards from the market.”
Personally a rather dour man, he studied demographics intently and shaped his estates and his prices to match incomes and preferences. As the divorce rate increased, he noted that divorce sold houses. When inflation took off in the 1970s, he reduced the size of his houses to put them within reach. “First-time buyers could no longer afford to buy three-bedroom semis so we moved a lot of our production to two-bedroom, and then, when it got worse, to one-bedroom.”
He made things simple for buyers with show houses, starter homes and financial packages. “They had to find a solicitor, find a mortgage and all the hire purchase for white goods. We translated all that into virtually one-stop shopping.”
Quick to see the benefits of national television advertising, Barratt Homes’ famous slots in the 70s featured the actor Patrick Allen flying over rows of Barratt Houses and then alighting from Barratt’s helicopter.
Retaining a base in the north-east, Barratt expanded into other parts of northern England and Scotland and then the south of England, making key acquisitions in Manchester and Luton. His business benefited from the latitude he allowed his local managers within an agreed framework, setting up a network of semi-autonomous subsidiaries that could react to local conditions.
He reached his apogee in 1983, building a record 16,500 houses, more than his principal rival, George Wimpey. He was knighted in 1982, the year he took a venture into inner-city development, buying and refurbishing 300 rundown council flats in Toxteth, Liverpool, the scene of riots the year before. But in the mid-80s business was badly hit by two World in Action programmes on ITV that questioned the quality of estate-built houses, and in particular that of timber-frame construction.
Barratt managed to steady the business but abandoned timber framing. By the time he retired in 1988, the company was making £61m a year, although with only 7,000 houses sold it had slipped to number three. By 1991 the company was in trouble following the end of the 80s boom and reductions in mortgage relief. Losses were estimated at £100m. Fewer than 5,000 houses were sold.
Barratt agreed to come back, announcing that he would work for nothing until he improved the business: “No profit, no pay.” Subsidiaries in the US were closed, a fifth of the staff laid off, and by the end of the year it was making a small profit.
Barratt remarked: “We are happier working in a recession. In boom times discipline disappears out of the window. Excess land costs and high building costs do no one any good at all.” When he retired for good in 1997 he had built more than 200,000 houses.
He remained a prominent figure in the north-east, living at Corbridge in Northumberland, playing golf locally, but also maintaining a 4,500-acre estate in North Yorkshire for shooting. However, his health deteriorated and he never completely recovered from an armed robbery at his home in January 2011, during which he and his wife were bound and gagged.
His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Sheila Brierley, whom he married in 1984, and by two sons from his first marriage.
• Lawrence Arthur Barratt, businessman, born 14 November 1927; died 18 December 2012