An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch

To better understand housing, ministers should be obliged to live for part of the year in new build homes that they have forced on the rest of the country.

Our guest writer is freelance journalist Robert Williams

Speaking at the Housing Market Intelligence Conference 2010 on Tuesday, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government Grant Shapps announced that the government intends to further reduce the “burden of regulation”.

He said:

“I will make sure any regulation must be cost-effective and proportionate – driving down unnecessary expense.

“Of course, building regulations will continue to set a national minimum requirement for all new homes to make sure they are safe and help us reach our climate change targets.”

Is it the onerous burden of regulation that has forced developers in the UK to build the smallest homes in the developed world? A study last year from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) confirmed what many people knew to be true. New-build properties do not provide enough space for everyday living.

Last year Boris Johnson deplored the fact that “new buildings in London have some of the smallest rooms in Europe” and talked about “homes for hobbits”. For new social housing to be provided in London, Johnson promised to re-establish the space standards first promoted by the visionary planner Sir Parker Morris.

Parker Morris Standards, adopted for social housing in the 1960s, became mandatory for council housing in 1969, and remained in force until 1980. It is worth remembering, as with so many decisions that have made life just that little bit more unpleasant over the years, that it was the Thatcher government that got rid of these rules.

The Parker Morris standards for space, privacy and convenience continue to provide the familiar features of what most people feel to be a modestly comfortable family home. It is not at all surprising that older houses and flats are considered desirable. There was room to swing a cat. Since the mad rush for home ownership began in the 1980s, houses and flats have got ever smaller, and now there is barely room to swing a hamster.

By way of comparison, in Holland the average size of a new build dwelling is 115 sq m and in Japan it is 92.5 sq m, while in the UK it is just 76 sq m.

In 1961 the Parker Morris Standards recommended to government that a one-bed flat should be at least 490 sq ft, a two-bed flat 623 sq ft and a three-bed unit 792 sq ft. Today, almost 50 years later, builders are putting up one-bed flats as small as 300 sq ft; two-bed units of 445 sq ft and three-bed ones at 657 sq ft. These are the very smallest examples uncovered by London Residential Research, which says the average one-bed flat has shrunk by 13% since 2000.

As well as new housing being too small, there is another problem. The quality of new homes built over the last two decades has got steadily worse. Penny Anderson – aka Rentergirl – has much to say about gossamer-thin dividing walls, poor quality brickwork, leaks and worse.

Did this happen because builders were over-burdened by excessive regulation? This is a matter of fundamental importance. Housing size and quality affects millions of people; those in social housing and with housing associations, home owners and also those in the private rental sector.

It is certainly true that Labour’s housing policy in government was a colossal failure. The housing that was built over the last decade (and for years before) was not socially sustainable, fit for purpose or even relevant to demand.

But if you had hopes that the Lib-Con alliance is about to regain the high ground on housing policy, and to rebuild (sic) trust by supporting quality over quantity in housing, then Grant Shapps’s speech was profoundly depressing. Mr Shapps added in his speech:

“I will also want to consider carefully the costs and benefits of continuing to have the same standards for market and social housing.”

He will need to ensure that local authorities are compliant in the case. Thousands of developers’ surplus new build homes in England have been rejected by housing associations because they were not built to a high enough standard. The glut of “luxury executive” apartments found in cities across the country, often empty, and rarely owned by the poor occupier – because they were built by speculators for landlords – will inevitably become tomorrow’s slums.

We all need a bit of space to think or dream in. Unfortunately, it seems as if the new government is moving housing policy even further in the wrong direction.

Here’s my proposal. Housing ministers should be obliged to live for part of the year in new build homes that they have forced on the rest of the country. Then let’s see if they want to push through the removal of any more “red tape”. Come on Mr Shapps: Why don’t you rise to the challenge?!

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