Minimum Space (standards)

This is a post by Alan Richards, a journalist and blogger on legal matters, financial affairs, politics and economics, who blogs at Alrich.  We are happy to add it to the blog, dealing as it does with size standards for housing, both social and private.

Anyone hoping the Government’s announcement that it is bringing in national minimum space standards for homes will ensure decent-sized housing from now on will be sadly disappointed.

The Department for Communities (DCLG) has confirmed it will bring in such a standard  – but the small print indicates it will be rarely applied. In fact the “national space standard” is no standard at all. Instead it is a Trojan horse intended to abolish local authority powers to set space standards for bedrooms and homes. The Government’s changes will have nothing to do with preventing cramped living or reversing the trend for smaller homes – the smallest in western Europe. It is clear the Government comes to bury housing regulations, not to praise them.

So why is this good news really bad news?

• The single national standard will do away with the individual controls councils have the power to set under planning law – flying in the face of the Government’s localism agenda;
• Local authorities will not be obliged to apply the authorised government standard. Those authorities that do not apply a standard now can continue not to;
• If local authorities do apply the national standard through planning regulations they must explain why they need to – largely in terms of accessibility, according to the national Building Regulations accessibility requirements (“Part M” )  not on the basis of improving residents’ lives and amenity or controlling high density development;
• The standard is very likely to be set at a low level (little more than the current lowest level for statutory overcrowding according to the model standards offered by DCLG so far), wiping out the higher standards some local authorities insist on;
• It would be operated through planning powers, not legally enforceable building regulations, so will be open to legal challenge by builders ready to pounce on any attempt at creative use of the single standard to improve residents’ living standards.
The new national standard is in fact no such thing since it will not be applied centrally nor required to be applied at all by law. It is likely to reduce standards not raise them.

The “model” examples of potential national bedroom size standards given in the 2013 consultation document on housing standards,  for example, are significantly smaller than many currently applied by local authorities that apply size standards, suggesting the effect of the national standard could be to reduce room sizes in new properties, not increase them.

The issues

There is evidence that Britain is bedevilled by “rabbit hutch homes” – some of the smallest housing in western Europe  (Also RIBA Report) (where for the most part there are national legal space standards) and that sizes have been declining.

Is this simply a matter of the private market able to offer less for more because of high demand? Or is it a social issue in which the state should intervene to protect consumers, crowded local environments and human dignity?

This is what the Government says in its newly published (13 March 2014) response to last year’s consultation:

“We believe that it is right that local communities and neighbourhoods have the ability to shape the nature of new development in their local areas. However, a proliferation of localised and varying space standards creates a potentially significant barrier to delivery of housing. We will therefore develop a new national standard – not a Building Regulation – which will offer a consistent set of requirements with regard to the internal area of new homes.” (Building regulations pdf, p1).

One cannot but think that the idea is to curb the only currently effective standards, particularly on room sizes – those imposed by local planning authorities. The complaint seems to be that some councils have been encouraged to impose space standards by the National Planning Policy Framework, which actually merely requires them to “identify the size, type, tenure and range of housing that is required in particular locations, reflecting local demand” (para 50). Councils have pushed this requirement to insist on quality standards including space standards.

The point of local standards, is that they can take account of local conditions and concerns. They can (theoretically) reflect the specific issues of the built environment in each separate place as well as the health and comfort of individual residents.

Arguably size of rooms is not just an individual issue for house and flat dwellers; it is an issue for others living in the area of those homes – a social issue. Smaller rooms are likely to mean more crowded environments, affecting the visual impact, outlook and loss of privacy, not just constricted internal space. That, surely, is an issue that the local community should have a say in. And it is something the new proposals will abolish rather than enhance.

Background

An increasing number of local authorities have introduced space standards. In London space standards have been applied by some local authorities but not others – in large part along political lines with Conservative councils generally against them. The Government’s August 2013 Housing standards review consultation (pdf) notes: “Current space standards adopted by local authorities vary from simple minimum internal floor areas for a small number of typical home types to highly detailed standards setting out requirements for individual room sizes, widths and specific furnishing requirements.” (Para 126)

The consultation asks the question “What is the problem this consultation seeks to address?” and answers it thus:

“Whilst it is recognised that most people see larger homes as desirable, there are implications in terms of construction cost, affordability for new home buyers and the potential need for larger areas of land to deliver a given number of homes. These and other factors all need to be properly understood and balanced against the benefits that larger homes provide.”

The question for the Government, then, is not how to avoid overcrowding or the depredations on the built environment associated with it. The Government explicitly offsets space standards against provision of numbers of homes – and implicitly suggests environmental crowding will be an acceptable result of the drive to build new homes – especially in the booming South-East, one assumes. An area attracting more people would be expected to put up with smaller homes and a more crowding than elsewhere.
The Government consulted on housing standards last year and 80% of respondents  said yes to this question:

“Do you think a space standard is necessary (when linked to access standards), and would you support in principle the development of a national space standard for use by local authorities across England?”

Builders were largely against it.

Emails prompted by a RIBA campaign said, however: “I believe that the most effective solution would be for a national space standard to be applied through Building Regulations so that it applies to all homes, in every location and type of housing.” This is emphatically not what the Government is now proposing.

The technical material accompanying the consultation document gave some indication of model standards that might be applicable. The minimum for a single bedroom would be 7 sq metres; for a double it would be 11 sq metres.

The current GLA London Housing Design Guide standard, in comparison, is 8 sq metres for singles and 12 sq metres for doubles.

Oxford has 7.5 sq m for a single room, 11.5 sq m for a double and 12 sq m for a twin. Southwark has 7 sq m for a single, 12 sq m for a double. The new national standard will abolish the more generous of these measurements.

In terms of the model standards given alongside the consultation document, 54% of 91 respondents said the gross area standards set out (ie for a whole flat or house) were not generous enough. A good majority agreed it was necessary to define minimum areas for bedrooms (73% of 102 respondents) but: “Main comments were again around the risk of proposed sizes not being adequate and the need to move away from classification by a number of bedrooms.” Builders and developers mostly disagreed with setting standards (constituting 6% of respondents), stating they preferred a market-led approach.

The new policy – giving with one hand…

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Stephen Williams announced the new standards on 13 March 2014.

The responses to the consultation showed a preference for space standards to be included in the Building Regulations. Although Williams says there are “significant benefits” in using Building Regulations to ensure standards in other contexts – here his concern is to cut regulation: “[We will] reduce over 100 standards to fewer than 10, and will provide significant cost savings for industry.”

In the announcement the Department for Communities makes clear that space standards will not be part of Building Regulations:

“We will therefore develop a new national standard – not a Building Regulation – which will offer a consistent set of requirements with regard to the internal area of new homes. This will have two different sets of specifications, based on a consolidation of existing space standards used by authorities across the country. Application of the standard will be optional for local authorities to use and they will need to justify its application according to evidenced needs [specifically accessibility] and subject to local plan viability testing.”

The press release says: “The minister also confirmed that the government would develop a national space standard to be available to councils where there was a need and where this would not stop development. This would replace the variety of different space standards which are currently required by councils.”

So no Building Regulations on space, the national space standard to be merely “available” to councils (and so vulnerable to legal and other pressure not to utilise it); only to be applied when there is a “need” and where it would not stop development – providing two significant avenues of legal challenge to builders who want to ensure no such standard is applied in a particular area.

The original consultation said:

“If the government decides to proceed with any of the space propositions (or higher access standards), application of higher levels of space standards would be limited to particular circumstances, for instance where the need for higher accessibility standards could be robustly evidenced. They would not be applicable independently.” (Para 83)

So the whole issue is put in the context of accessibility, not increased space per se nor the dignity or comfort of the residents nor the quality of the built environment or overcrowded cityscapes.

The new national standards load the dice heavily against those local authorities that have established space standard in the past and even where they manage to apply them, it provides a one-size fits all standard with no discretion to deviate from it. And that standard is likely to be pretty well at the bottom of anyone’s idea of what might be suitable – no more than one square metre above the current minimum definition for overcrowding  (Housing Act 1985 Part X) for a single or double room.

The Government has cunningly given the impression that it is joining the progressive, modern countries of Europe by establishing space standards. In reality it is removing powers from local authorities and allowing builders to carry on creating homes fit for rabbits to live in.

By Giles Peaker

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