An Englishman’s home is his rabbit hutch? Implications of the national space standard for the building control profession

When the coalition government launched a fundamental review of England’s building regulations in 2012, it was called “the biggest change in housing standards in a generation.”  One of the review’s major outcomes was a standard that prescribes space sizes for all new-build homes, bringing the rest of England into line with London, which has had its own space standard since 2011. But a year on from its introduction, the national space standard has been branded too complex to implement and too easy to evade.

Looking back on housing space standards

Housing space specifications are not a new idea. There were prescribed floor space minimums in England’s public housing between 1967 and 1980. These were based on the recommendations of the Parker Morris Committee of 1961, which linked space to the utility of homes, rather than to expected occupancy levels (a benchmark that’s still applicable in Scotland). This standard was sidelined in the 1980s, and the focus shifted to housing delivery.

The new national standard

The government’s 2012 Housing Standards Review aimed to reduce the cost and complexity of building new homes by streamlining the large number of codes, regulations and technical housing standards applied to new housing through the planning system.

Most of the outcomes from the review (such as those affecting security, energy and accessibility) required changes to the building regulations. But when it came to the national space standard, the government decided there was no case for statutory regulation. Instead, the standard is optional for local authorities to adopt, subject to local plan viability testing and approval by the planning inspectorate.

The national space standard, which came into effect in October 2015, includes requirements such as:

  • A new three bed, five person home should be a minimum of 93m²
  • a one bed, one person flat should be a minimum of 37m²
  • Two-bedroom homes should have at least one double bedroom
  • A double bedroom should have minimum floor area of 11.5m²

House builders strongly disagreed with the changes, claiming the standard would reduce the number of new homes being built and increase costs. But the space standard won vociferous support from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), who went on to argue that it didn’t go far enough:

“Local authorities should be able to set space standards in order to improve new build homes in their communities. However….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.”

England’s shrinking spaces

England has the smallest homes by floor space area of any EU country. In 2013, the average size of a home was 93.6m², compared to 115.5 square metres in the Netherlands and 137 square metres in Denmark.

The contrast has given rise to new family homes in England being described as “rabbit hutches” because they are not big enough to comfortably meet the needs of residents. Smaller rooms have implications for wellbeing and quality of life, creating problems for storage, preparing food and entertaining visitors. More fundamentally, smaller living spaces can have impacts on mental health and family relationships.

Fighting for space

Shortly after the introduction of the national space standard, in October 2015, RIBA claimed that administration costs, red tape and potential challenges from developers on site-specific viability grounds, made it unlikely that the standard would have any meaningful impact:

“All of these bureaucratic processes place an excessive and unnecessary burden on local authorities to justify something which the government has already recognised is sensible and fair.”

Again, RIBA called for the space standard to be included in the building regulations, and again house builders voiced their opposition. Stewart Basely of the Home Builders Federation claimed buyers were content with the size of new builds, and warned that mandatory space standards could make the housing shortage worse:

 “Imposing space standards and so restricting what builders can build takes away choice from home buyers. This would not only prevent more people from buying their own home but also exacerbate the acute shortage of housing that we have experienced over several decades.”

Space: a place for building control?

On the face of it, the national space standard is not an issue concerning building control, whose focus is on enforcing the national building regulations.  But government guidance on the internal space standard has indicated that building control surveyors may have a role to play in the approvals process:

“Building control bodies may choose to provide checking of the space standard in development proposals as an additional service alongside carrying out their building control function. In these circumstances, local planning authorities may wish to avoid further additional checking of plans with regard to space standards.”

And the national standard could yet be included in the building regulations. In a House of Lords debate on the Housing and Planning Bill in May 2016, Labour peer Lord Beecham, put forward an amendment to make the standards mandatory. His intervention followed the Labour Party’s Lyons Housing Review, which recommended that space standards should be applied nationally, but suggested that more work was needed to consider exemptions in certain markets.

Later in 2016, the government launched a review into how the space standards are operating in practice. The findings of the review will be published in the spring, and it will be interesting to see the effects of the standard, and whether RIBA’s argument for mandatory implementation has taken hold.

Building control surveyors may have their hands full, not least because of changes to the building regulations resulting from the Housing Standards Review. But it’s not out of the question that the national space standard could yet become part of their workload.

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