Government proposals to set a minimum size for bedrooms in the rental sector have once again shone a light on Britain’s shrinking homes. The suggestion has been raised in a discussion paper, with the measure described as “new measures to tackle rogue landlords and overcrowded housing”.
Currently, minimum bedroom sizes apply to homes in multiple occupation of three storeys, and the suggestion is that the scope is extended to cover more shared properties, including those of one or two storeys. This would mean that bedrooms could not be smaller than 6.5 square metres. The proposed extension of licencing would be policed by local authorities.
Said housing minister Brandon Lewis: “It is simply unacceptable that people are living in cramped, unsafe accommodation provided by landlords who are more interested in a quick profit than the safety or welfare of their tenants.”
“The actions of these rogue landlords are helping fuel illegal working, benefit fraud, and illegal immigration by creating a shadow housing market that carries dangers to people’s health as well as communities.”
“The government is determined to crack down on rogue landlords and these measures, alongside those in the Housing Bill, will further strengthen councils’ powers to tackle poor-quality privately rented homes in their area.”
The discussion paper seeks local authority responses on three issues: extending the licencing of HMOs (homes in multiple occupation); adding the minimum room size requirement; and simplifying the process of applying for an HMO licence.
The paper comes after a recent case at the Lands Chamber decided the minimum space standards should only be a guide. This has prompted fears that landlords are getting the upper hand in renting out box rooms, basements and mezzanines.
Ian Fletcher, director of policy (real estate) at the BPF commented: “We understand that the Government is trying to crack down on rogue landlords who are unlawfully filling HMOs with illegal immigrants living in poor conditions, but there is huge scope for unintended consequences if the Government does not get this redefinition right.
“The current system allows local councils to target other forms of HMOs through discretionary schemes and the definition of a mandatory HMO was carefully crafted in 2004 to be proportional. Widening scope as set out will not only capture many new-build student halls, but the extension to some flat-conversions will have implications for owners of some leasehold property, their property managers, and value of their homes.”
The move has reopened a well-rehearsed debate over home size, advanced by many in the housing sector, and supported by the Royal Institution of British Architects, which argues for larger home standards. Alex Johnstone, a Conservative MSP in North East Scotland, used a debate in the Scottish parliament recently to hit out at “rabbit hutch housing” that he declared is making people ill. British homes now average 76 sq metres, compared with 109 sq m in Germany, 115 sq m in Holland and 137 sq m in Denmark.
“Rabbit hutch and shoe box are just two of the terms I have heard used to describe the size of modern homes, often by people who have just returned dejected from a visit to a show home in a new development,” he claimed.
“The long term effects on people living in homes that are effectively overcrowded are deeply worrying. For example, a study by researchers at the University of Cambridge suggests that in extreme cases, overcrowded homes can cause physical illnesses such as asthma, and mental illnesses such as depression.”
“The fact that individuals report that they do not have enough space to have quiet time in private may be a contributory factor in this. Less extreme cases can impact on the social and emotional development of children, while at the same time degrading relationships and making it difficult to socialise by entertaining guests.”
An alternative view came from think tank the Adam Smith Institute, which pointed out in a blog entry: “Lots of people wish to live in parts of the country where there are not many bedrooms. Therefore people are living in small bedrooms rather than large ones: that’s just what happens. If there’s a shortage of food then people eat smaller meals, if the pub runs out of beer then everyone drinks shorts. Shortages lead to smaller measures.”
“Government would not ban the consumption of gin if beer were to go short, government would not ban smaller plates if food were to be short, so quite why government thinks that the banning of small bedrooms is going to increase the supply of bedrooms is unknown to us.”
LPA Perspective: The argument over bedroom size brings together several parties, most of them loudly proclaiming the importance of larger rooms in homes. As an aspiration, that is great. The reality is that the cost of building land is getting ever higher, putting ever more pressure on the price of a home, owned or rented. Ergo, homes are being built smaller. Economics trump idealistic aspirations.
Yes, there are rogue landlords, but nobody is forced to rent a small room against their free will. Maybe they choose to do so in a rental market where demand is exceeding supply to the extent they feel they have little practical choice, but they are still ultimately not being forced into the act. And they are probably choosing the small room because it is cheaper than a large room.
In response to the market, new entrants to the private rented sector are proposing smaller flats, to make them affordable for young professionals. Already, Essential Living has received complaints from Islington council about the size of flats it is building at Archway. The debate is not going to go away, as the capital densifies and property costs move ever higher.
With luck, hard pressed local authorities will tell the government they simply cannot police yet more property regulations. It is also unhelpful in tackling London’s housing needs to apply the same regulations in leafy Waltham Forest as in Westminster or Islington where densities and need are much greater. Let the free market decide.