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Space Man

July 2019 Issue

Watching Theresa May’s speech at the Housing 2019 conference in Manchester I was struck by the catalogue of good news she opened with. In the last year more additional homes were delivered than in all but one of the last 31 years. In Manchester, the number of extra homes being created is up 12 per cent, in Nottingham by 43 per cent, and in Birmingham by 80 per cent. What’s more the number of affordable housing starts has also increased to nearly 54,000 this year.

Well done everyone.

So why does it still feel like there’s a housing crisis? Well apart from the fact that a surge in the provision of new housing will have to run for many years to address the shortfall – the numbers themselves are pretty deceptive. Why for example say that more additional homes were delivered in all ‘but one’ of the last 31 years? When was that ‘one’ year? I suspect it was not so long ago – but it would be less impressive to say that more additional homes were delivered than in all of, say, the last 3 years. So she didn’t.

And while extra homes may be abundant in Manchester. Nottingham and Birmingham what about the most populous region of the UK? London? Well in that region housing starts were down by 20%. Not so good there then.

There’s also the question of those 54,000 affordable homes?

In Birmingham 1 bed flats start at about £45,000 – that’s about 50% more than the average annual UK salary – so fairly affordable by any mortgage calculator. In London the price starts at about £90,000 – which sounds OK – until you realise that’s for only 25% of the equity. But it still qualifies as an affordable home - so it goes in the statistic.

Where I think her speech did start to improve was when she focused on Space Standards – and in particular the catastrophe that is Office to Resi’ Permitted Development Rights. There’s a practical purpose to these rights – which have successfully led to the conversion of numerous vacant office buildings into residential use – the problem is that there’s no requirement to comply with many of the better standards required of new-build housing. So PDR flats are created with no external amenity spaces and no minimum internal space standards. This is as bad a distortion of the market as Help to Buy – but rather than inflating prices (like Help to Buy) it diminishes quality - it’s a massive disincentive to creating good quality new-builds.

Croydon is an example of a place that has suffered hard as result. This is a great shame as there are good things happening in Croydon. There’s the ‘orange’ overground line that links it to Shoreditch, there’s a new Boxpark and there’s a Westfield coming. There’s also a really interesting council owned developer called Brick by Brick which is creating imaginative new-build housing on council owned back land and infill plots across the borough – notably using a variety of imaginative and talented architects including its own council owned practice (the appropriately named ‘Common Ground’).

Against this backdrop one iniquitous example of PDR conversion actually made me laugh out loud at its breath-taking cynicism when I read about it in the paper. The article was celebrating a developer for creating 1 bed flats that he described as being for the ‘iPad generation’ (utter marketing drivel) – trumpeted at a sale price of £150k for a 1 bed flat. That’s 25% less than the more regular £200k for a local new build – which sounds great until you realise its for a 30sqm flat – that’s 40% smaller than the requirement for a new build – and with no external amenity space either. So – that’s £5000/sqm revenue for a poky PDR conversion as opposed £4000/sqm revenue for a new build that’ll be more expensive to build. This is just wrong.

But that’s not the worst of it. Newbury House in East London, a recent PDR conversion fronting six lanes of the A12 in East London includes studio apartments that are just 13 sqm each. That’s less than half the size of a Travelodge Room – and includes a kitchen and sofa.

There’s definitely a place for small dwellings – indeed present them in the form of a motor home or private yacht and they’re positively desirable. Crucially however people choose to be in a motor home or yacht, and they are there for a limited period of time – and motor homes and yachts tend to come with a lot of space attached (…Utah, the sea etc.).

Planning has demonstrated itself to be an inadequate tool for the protection of residential amenity – so Space Standards should be regulated in the Building Regulations as a minimum – they should become the ‘rule’ - much as we already do for Fire Safety, Accessibility or Acoustics. There should be provisions to allow for exceptions of course – but the Regulations already allow this in other areas – For example I’ve been involved with many buildings that have taken a ‘Fire-Engineered’ approach to Fire Safety rather than strictly following the ‘rules’.

Very rock and roll I know… – but the reason the rules are broken is because a compelling case can be made that there’s huge value in an alternative approach, even though it often requires as I said, imagination, investment and care, These are what is needed to create something high quality and exceptional. Something that’ll be a legacy – not a slum.

In the case of residential Space Standards an obvious exception to the ‘rule’ would be for back land and infill sites being developed by the end-user – where the dwelling is very specifically tailored to the needs of that person - but once again this would require imagination, investment and care.

That’s sounds a lot like design to me – so - does anyone need an architect?

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