Among the excellent presentations at the recent Hertfordshire Housing Conference at the Building Research Establishment in Watford were two that raised the question of the size of housing accommodation in London and the South East especially for single people.
As we know, house prices have been rising rapidly in London yet again - fuelled, we are told, by demand from foreign investors who are sometimes content to leave the homes empty for long periods. Poorer people who want or need to be in London and who may work in our service industries are increasingly being forced to live in smaller spaces shared with people they don’t know. Living rooms, kitchens etc. in shared houses become bedrooms, and bedrooms are used for sleeping in shifts.
The YMCA has responded to the housing needs of the young single people who come to their hostels by piloting a 26 square metre housing pod - made in a factory and able to be stacked up to three stories high. The ‘pods’ can be put on land that isn’t available for long term use and then moved on to another site after a few years. Because they are temporary and the tenancies will be short term, these units may not be subject to the planning requirements for permanent housing.
So surely this new YMCA ‘pod’ is a logical response to the housing crisis in London and the South East? Let’s recognise the high price of land, the shortage of sites and the huge demand and build smaller, more affordable homes where we can.
But, hold on, aren’t we supposed to be driving up housing standards?
The Mayor of London requires a housing unit for a single person to be at least 37 m2 and 48 m2 for a two person unit. The new Housing Standards support these size criteria. According to some, this country already has the smallest homes in western Europe.
Over the last 30 years, we have seen local authorities and housing associations converting shared housing and bedsits into larger, self contained units in response to higher tenant expectations. Who wants to live in a small flat with no space for guests, storage, working from home etc? Supposing you decide you want to form a relationship and move someone in?
But a combination of lower levels of housebuilding, house price (and rent) rises and welfare benefit cuts are exacerbating the housing crisis for poorer people and single people in London and the South East. We desperately need more affordable housing. Can we afford to maintain a commitment to high housing space standards while communities are breaking up because single people and poorer people can’t afford to live there?
Smaller homes are more affordable and economic in their use of land. You can get up to three new YMCA homes for every two ‘Boris’ homes and the sales price or the rent will be correspondingly lower. With good design, the homes may prove to be a perfectly acceptable size for many single people and a much more attractive option than sharing a larger unit.
So why can’t the planning regulations be flexible enough to allow builders to build permanent smaller units in response to the housing affordability crisis? The demand is undoubtedly there and I am sure that a number of housing associations would want to enter the market to build and rent out these homes. Few of us see a new government coming to the rescue with the funding necessary to build sufficient numbers of affordable homes to solve the housing problems of the capital and its hinterland.
So maybe we have to sacrifice some of our ideals to find some solutions that work in the current market and thank the YMCA for pointing the way? Or has anyone got some better ideas?