16 September 2020

Don’t sneer at tiny flats – if anything we need more of them

By Anthony Breach

The shortage of home caused by the planning system is the key problem behind the UK’s housing crisis – a problem so severe it has spurred the Government to announce a series of major reforms recently. Despite this, in the past few years we have seen a number of stories on new one-bed flats that are small and sub-standard.

These are usually allowed through “Permitted Development Rights” (PDR), a process that – under certain conditions – allows some development without the difficulty of going through a long-winded, uncertain planning process. In recent years PDR has made commercial-to-residential conversions more common, and in the past few weeks has been expanded to include rooftop extensions and the demolition and redevelopment of vacant buildings.

These reforms have attracted criticism for two reasons. First, there’s no minimum size for flats built under PDR. Second, some of the conversions have not been up to scratch.

But these two issues should not be confused. Although we need higher quality housing, we also need many more small flats. To get them built, we first need to stop rationing the supply of housing.

That means allowing enough development to take place so that old, poor quality housing stock is removed and a surplus of empty homes is created. A surge in supply would force developers and landlords to compete on quality, rather than fighting over control of a limited quantity of new homes.

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with tiny flats. Everyone, when looking for housing, makes trade-offs between size. quality, price and location. Small flats allow people who want to live in an expensive city to spend less on rent. They are not for everyone, but they are the right choice for some. More people living in smaller flats also frees up larger homes for families, rather than turning them into houseshares.

In contrast, minimum space standards are bad. By forcing new flats to be far bigger than people actually want, they make them more expensive than they should be. This is why London in particular has so few affordable one-bed flats. Although the average Londoner has 33 square metres of space, minimum space standards force many new one-beds to be 50 square metres. This is too large for many single people to afford, and pushes people into housesharing to save money.

Flats which are below the minimum space standard are not necessarily poor quality. Well designed and well built small homes can be great places to live. In contrast, minimum space standards force adults in London and other expensive cities to share big, old pre-war houses with strangers. It is not obvious that a damp room in a mouldy old pile is better quality than a new, well-insulated and dry flat of 20 square metres which would be banned under the current space standards.

Although PDR does seem to have allowed some poor quality conversions from possibly unsuitable office blocks and retail units, the issue here is not one of size. Building regulations can and should deal with very poor quality and unsafe housing, but minimum space standards that simply force these units to be bigger would not fix these problem.

Perhaps surprisingly though, neither would removing PDR. There is only so much that building regulations can do. The real problem is that planning permissions constrain development, leading to a shortage of housing. This means that renters on low incomes and young people in expensive cities have little choice but to live in worse housing.

What we really need in our cities is so many homes that landlords are no longer able to profitably let out poor-quality and badly maintained properties.If there was a much greater surplus of empty houses landlords and developers would be forced to provide higher quality housing at lower prices to outcompete their rivals. But at the moment this is not possible, as our case-by-case approach to granting planning permissions throttles supply and exhausts almost all surplus housing stock.

To get better housing, we need more rules-based decision-making to reduce unnecessary risk to those building new homes. Instead of our unpredictable, discretionary planning system, we should introduce a new flexible zoning system. The recent expansion of PDR to allow the demolition and redevelopment of vacant buildings is a step in the right direction. Rather than having to turn old commercial units into sub-par flats, developers will now have the freedom to start from scratch and deliver purpose-built homes.

Instead of trying to force new homes to be better through blunt instruments such as minimum space standards, planning policy needs to force landlords to compete on providing better housing for less money. In developing its planning reforms the Government should note that quantity can mean quality.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Columns are the author’s own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.

Anthony Breach is an analyst at the Centre for Cities.