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Too compact for comfort

12 September, 2008

Compact and bijou – the slums of tomorrow?
By Ray Furlong
September 12, 2008
BBC News

New homes in England are being built smaller than almost anywhere else in Europe, a new exhibition reveals. Are the gleaming new apartments buildings of the past decade the inner-city slums of tomorrow?

The streets of Barking have been transformed in recent years. Multi-coloured housing blocks have rejuvenated the drab skyline of this deprived corner of east London, in developments that have been widely praised for regenerating the area. “My one-bedroom flat is really cool: brand new, wooden floors, open plan, nice furniture, spacious enough for two people,” says a young woman from the Seychelles rushing home from work. But another man, emerging from the lobby, has a different view. “The transformation will be good for Barking and the flats are all right, but it’s just the storage space. If you’ve got your own furniture from a previous place it’ll be extra congested, tight and small.”

“But these are for like students and people that work during the week – it’s not for families, or people who want to live here.” My unscientific straw poll of people coming in and out suggested that all the flats had gone on buy-to-let mortgages – everyone here was renting. There’s a similar story at another new development around the corner. “My house at home had 320 square metres – my one-bedroom flat here is about 50 metres-squared,” says Gavin Booth, who arrived from New Zealand two months ago. “I’ve got my wife and one child. It’s OK but you don’t have much space for yourself – three of us sleep in the one room.”

No standards

For Mr Booth, it’s just part of the “expectation of people living round this area”. Albeit “a bit of a culture shock”. Seven-hundred miles away, at one of the world’s major architecture shows, the culture of architecture is indeed the issue. At the British pavilion of the Venice Biennale of Architecture 2008, exhibitors are addressing the issue of modern housing in the UK. “The aim of the exhibition is to look at the culture of housing provision in Britain and to draw some conclusions by comparing with the cultures elsewhere in Europe,” says curator Ellis Woodman.

“Each of the architects in the exhibition is showing a British housing scheme and a foreign housing scheme. It turns out we’re building the smallest dwellings in Western Europe. This is because England and Wales are the only parts of Europe without designated space standards.” Mr Woodman highlights an exhibit by an architecture firm that designed social housing in London and Geneva. The British flats are about 30% smaller. It’s evidence, he says, that shows minimum standards must be introduced, he says. “It has impacts in all walks of life: children’s education is affected if they’ve no space, and there’s an environmental impact where people move to suburbs for space and then commute. Inner cities become the preserve of immigrants, poor people, and childless couples. The fear is that we’re building the slums of the future.”

Pre-1980 standards

Alone in the UK, Scotland does have legislation on minimum sizes for homes in the commercial sector. Northern Ireland has rules on social housing – while in England and Wales many local authorities also have size regulations for affordable housing. But none of this covers private sector developments. Last year, English Partnerships, a national regeneration agency for England, announced it was adopting size standards based on the old Parker Morris standards that applied to council housing until 1980 – plus 10%. And in June, London Mayor Boris Johnson said he wanted to revive a form of Parker Morris standards in the capital. It seems likely these will apply to affordable housing and private developments on London Development Agency land.

But the housing industry is resistant to the idea of blanket statutory requirements, questioning whether they would be effective. John Slaughter, a director at the Homebuilders Federation, says bluntly they won’t work. “If you look at space standards you will be in danger of over-regulating the market and might add to costs of housing provision,” says Mr Slaughter. But if people seem to want bigger properties, why the surfeit of poky homes? There isn’t enough land to meet supply, says Mr Slaughter. “Prior to the slowdown [it] meant we had very high land prices. A lot of other things were loaded on development including contributions to affordable housing and infrastructure provision. You really need to look at what the driver is for supply overall and tackle that.’

Back in Barking, a look at the site plans for these gleaming new apartments reveal many would not meet the minimum space standards required in, for example, Germany or Ireland. Perhaps a minimum requirement would prevent them being built at all. The developers declined to comment. If supporters of legislation are looking to the government to offer some leadership on the issue, they risk being disappointed. “We are working in partnership with industry to improve design, quality and environmental standards,” says a spokesman for housing minister Caroline Flint. “[We] welcome their efforts to address these issues. We are keeping this situation under review on whether further measures are necessary.”

Floor Area Per Dwelling
Germany (2003): 113.9m²
France (2002): 112.6m²
Ireland (2003): 105m²
England (1981-2001): 82.7m²
Italy (2000): 81.5m²
Source: Housing Statistics in EU 2004

See also: Allford Hall Monaghan Morris

Venice Biennale of Architecture 2008

British Council/BD survey

London Open House 2008

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