RIBA housing lead rails at 'bonkers' micro-housing rules

Jim Dunton

Julia Park, interim chair of the RIBA Housing Group, at City Hall in London

London Assembly session told squeezed space requirements won’t deliver cheaper homes

RIBA’s housing lead has dubbed the ability of new housing developments that feature communal space and very small living units to skirt planning rules a “scandal”.

Julia Park, who is interim chair of the institute’s housing group, told a London Assembly Housing Committee session on space standards that it was “bonkers” that some housing types did not need to conform to the same accessibility and space standards as other buildings such as prisons.

The discussion was called to investigate whether the capital’s space standards, now adopted nationally, were a brake on the delivery of new homes and whether smaller homes would be cheaper to develop.

Park saved her strongest concerns for the growth of student-housing style micro homes.

“They’re a specific part of the private rental sector, and they’re smaller – below the space standards typically,” she said.

“They get treated as ‘sui generis’ in the planning process, which means we don’t have a proper debate. It’s bonkers.”

Park told assembly members that the lack of a specific category for micro homes set them apart from the likes of prisons, detention centres, army barracks, hostels, care homes and hotels, and allowed them to bypass standards on space and accessibility.

“Micro homes, for some bizarre reason, just get pushed through on the premise of being student housing, or something that for historic reasons has never been recognised as residential,” she said.

“We really are having our cake and eating it here and I think it’s quite a scandal.”

Park also told the session that the capital’s housing crisis was putting a general “downward pressure” on the space that could be afforded for new housing development.

“It’s getting harder and harder to fit in the bikes, the bins, the lifts, the service risers, the outdoor space and the play areas,” she said.

“As architects, we do our best, and we increasingly have to use roof-top space for amenities, which can work very well [although] it suits some tenures better than others.”

Park said a lot of time and effort had gone into the current space standards, which have been in place in London since 2010, but were rolled out across the UK in 2015.

“All that’s changed [since 2010] is that we’ve failed to build anywhere near as many homes as we need, so the pressure on housing has increased,” she said.

“The reasons for needing that much space to live a decent life haven’t changed. I don’t think space standards make homes bigger, I think they help us fit our homes better.”

Toby Lloyd, policy director at housing charity Shelter, said market pressures – particularly in relation to land values – would immediately absorb any savings from the development of smaller homes.

“People assume that if you make homes smaller it will make them cheaper, but it doesn’t,” he said.

“All it means is that the land-owner can extract more value from the development process.”

Lloyd said the suggestion that space standards could be re-examined every five years or wriggled out of in emergencies sent a “disastrous signal” to the market.

“The market is extremely efficient in this regard, and it will price in any reduction to the next site, and the one after that.”


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