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Let's build smaller to get more single people in their own homes

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A view on the recent debate over minimum size standards for new homes 

It is so difficult for young people to get on the housing ladder that housing & communities secretary James Brokenshire wants to tempt them into using their pension pots as a deposit. Today, he proposed changing the rules on pensions to “empower” youngsters to dip into pensions in order to pay for their first home.

But I think there may be a more economically savvy way to enable more young people be able to move into a space of their own – by easing planning regulations to allow smaller flats to be built.

Councils have been wary of giving the nod to new developments of ‘micro-flats’ that go under the minimum space requirements that the government introduced in 2015, which stipulate a minimum floor plan of 37 square metres for any new one-bedroom flats with shower room, or 39 square metres with bathroom.

In comparison, the average size of a home in England and Wales is 90 square metres.

Flats below the standard can be permissible where they help to meet housing need, but are more difficult to get planning permission for.

Earlier this year, the Adam Smith Institute called for the Greater London Authority (GLA) to scrap its rules on minimum floor space, stating that homes with less than 37 square metres of floor space could be an “affordable opportunity” for young people.

The London-based property developer U+I has spent the last two years trying to persuade London authorities to go into partnerships with them to build thousands of micro-flats, or ‘town flats’, as they call them, on council-owned brownfield land across London. Each block would contain about 200 flats, each with a floorspace of just 19 square metres, made habitable by using more multifunctional furniture than an Ikea superstore.

But so far, London’s councils have been reluctant to sign up, as guidance on minimum space requirements remains a fundamental part of the London Plan.

U+I’s chief development officer Richard Upton believes it is time for a rethink on these standards. Of course, some might this as a cynical ploy to squeeze more bang for the buck out of potential developments, but he makes a good case for his cause.

Speaking last Wednesday at a Town and Country Planning Association event, ‘Rethinking our Planning System’, Mr Upton claimed that these regulations were “designed for another world” – “when TVs and phones were bulky and stuff took up space. But the world has changed,” he said. “So many of these things now can be enjoyed on a phone screen.”

As somebody who lived in a caravan with three children for three months on the trot (while waiting for a house sale to go through) I am inclined to agree. Although I would not recommend small spaces for families with small children to anyone - for the sake of maintaining sanity - for single millennials who adhere to the principles of the sharing economy and have few possessions, and who see London as their playground, space is a luxury they could be willing to sacrifice.

Interior designers have come up with neat ways that we can innovate to make more out of space, with tables that can be hooked to the wall after use, and beds that fold up. Some single people might be willing to forsake space for the opportunity of independence that a flat can provide, particularly those who are frustrated with having to check if one of their housemates has been stealing their milk every morning.

Mr Upton also claims he is worried about London being “hollowed out”, claiming that “small flats, if they were beautifully designed and affordable, could enable teachers and workers to live in zones two to three, many of whom now face long commutes of over three hours and have zero sense of community.”

Another developer in the audience explained that one London council he had worked with had “strong resistance” even to 40 square metre unit flats. “We have to go to 50 [square metres] unless we can jump through hoops,” he said. “That’s discriminating against young people. And it means a divorced man can’t compete in the housing market, so he has to live in a shared house instead of being independent.”

Former housing minister Nick Raynsford, who is behind the Raynsford Report on the state of the planning system, said he agreed that “some single people would benefit from well designed small units”. But he warned: “If the local authority places whole families in them, without natural light, this would be disastrous. The problem is that there is currently no mechanism to say that ‘this kind of home can only be occupied by one person’. We need development that meets individual needs.”

Mr Raynsford is on the board of Pocket Living, a London-based developer which designs units at, or just above minimum space standards to enable young professionals to get onto the housing ladder.

At the company’s 70-apartment scheme in Lambeth, south London, one-bedroom flats of 38 sq m can be bought for £265,000 and are pitched at buyers with a household income of £45,000 or less.

But although Pocket Living’s flats are small, they do not break the minimum space standards, which the company’s chief executive Marc Vlessing doesn’t believe should be reduced. He told LGC: “Pocket homes offer sufficient room for a king sized bed, a dining table that can extend to seat eight and a living space that feels spacious with floor to ceiling windows. This is achieved through clever design which meets the needs of consumers today.

“To reduce this standard would compromise future generations’ living conditions. Housing should not be a race to the bottom to meet delivery numbers.”

A spokesperson for London mayor Sadiq Khan told LGC that the mayor does not support micro-flats, and his new draft London Plan even goes as far as to strengthen the minimum space standards. “New homes should provide enough space to be functional, fit for purpose and meet the changing needs of Londoners over their lifetimes,” the spokesperson said.

But the mayor’s stance hasn’t stopped micro-flats from being built in London that go beneath these standards, as some developers have used permitted development rights to get around the problem. At Merlin House in Kilburn, offices were converted into 12 one-bedroom apartments - none of which meets the minimum national space standards, according to research by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

The pressure on land in England is only going to increase with our ever-ageing population, and we should be willing to compromise on space requirements if we are not to lose significant chunks of green space and keep to our environmental commitments. After all, small can be beautiful - it’s what you do with it that counts.

Jessica Hill, senior reporter 

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