Why housing space standards matter

Posted on 31 March 2013 0 comments

Unlike many Western European countries, England and Wales do not have minimum space standards for housing mandated by law. The exception is London where housing that receives any funding from Government must meet the minimum space standards set out in the London Housing Design Guide.

Why do housing space standards matter? Without space standards, landlords, housebuilders and property investors get away with providing tiny or inadequate space in their properties. When there is no agreement on what is acceptable as a minimum size for a property, landlords and housebuilders can do as they please.

In 1961, a Government-commissioned report called Homes for Today and Tomorrow proposed minimum space standards for new housing. The report is more commonly known as the Parker Morris standard and by the end of the 1960s the standard was mandatory for all publicly-funded housing. In 1980, the Conservatives scrapped the standard.

England and Wales have never had mandatory space standards for the private sector. But standards for publicly-funded homes at least set a benchmark from which we can measure the space standards of all homes. And we can rightly criticise new homes that fall below these standards. Many housebuilders and people purchasing property for profit will hate such legislation. Property, in their eyes, is a pure profit-making business. But housing is much more than that. The design of housing affects our health and wellbeing in so many ways. We cannot ignore the importance of design, but equally we cannot ignore the social aspects of housing either.

Just to be clear, we are not talking about palatial space standards here. Even the London Housing Design guide offers a modest increase on what the Parker Morris report recommended over 50 years ago. And these space standards are still lower than other European countries. In Germany, for example, a one-bedroom flat for two people is 20% larger than what the London Housing Design guide recommends.

London space standards vs German space standards
This graphic is from the RIBA’s Future Homes Commission report published in October 2012

A visitor to this blog recently wrote to me to describe their housing situation. They live in a flat owned by a housing association. The flat was built in the 1920s with two-bedrooms and no bathroom. At some point in the flats’ history it was converted into a three-bedroom flat. The original living room was split in two to make a new bedroom. The kitchen was also split in two to accommodate a tiny bathroom. As you can probably guess by now, this is a very cramped flat. It measures 58 square metres and houses 5 people. The Housing Association thinks this is perfectly fine. They will not re-classify the property as suitable for 3 or 4 people because doing so would mean re-housing the family. It would set a precedent that would probably mean re-housing others too.

The Housing Association readily admits that it does not look at the square footage of a property when considering housing needs. It looks solely at the number of bedrooms and whether that meets the needs of the applicant for the property. Many Housing associations use the same approach when allocating social housing (known as the Bedroom Standard).

By way of comparison, the 50-year-old Parker Morris space standards that were scrapped by the Conservatives in 1980 recommend a 4-person flat to be a minimum of 69.7 square metres. The London Housing design guide recommends a three-bedroom flat for 4 persons to be a minimum of 74 square metres. Click the image below to compare these differences with the three-bedroom 58 square metre flat. It’s clear that counting the number of bedrooms without recourse to the size of a property simply makes no sense.

floor space comparison between different space standards

One thing is certain, we will never get mandatory space standards from the current Lib-Dem/Conservative government. In November 2010, Grant Shapps, the then Housing Minister, scrapped core housing standards drawn up by the Homes & Communities agency. These standards would have applied to any publicly-funded homes. Shapps said:

“There’s no good reason why homes built on public land should be built any differently to those of high quality on private land. So I’m getting rid of this unnecessary requirement, and I’ll be working hard to make sure that, in the long run, the standards that apply to private and public housing are exactly the same.”

In other words, housebuilders are now free to drag all new housing down to their (mostly) miserable standards.

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