By Colin Wiles, housing consultant.

This week, the Intergenerational Foundation published a report on micro-homes (written mainly by me, with a foreword by Danny Dorling). See here. The report analyses the growing phenomenon of building tiny apartments of less than 37 square metres (the government’s minimum size for a one-bed one-person flat). These are defined as “micro-homes”.

The smallest “micro-home” we found was of just 8.3 square metres (smaller than a standard parking space) in an office to residential conversion in Croydon. It is basically a room with a single bed, a W.C. and a basin, with no space for storage, eating or food preparation.

The report starts with a history of space standards in the UK from the Addision Act of 1919 onwards, and notes that little progress has been made in making our homes bigger and more comfortable. For example, the Addision Act prescribed 98 square metres for a three-bed “parlour house” yet the current national space standards prescribe 93 square metres for a three-bed five-person house.

Standards have gone up and down over the past century, often rising after wars (“Homes fit for Heroes”) and falling in times of economic hardship. The generous Parker Morris standards were scrapped in the early eighties and homes became smaller as a result.

The average new home in the UK is around 76 square metres, compared to 137 square metres in Denmark, and we have the smallest rooms in Europe and the second smallest homes. Part of the problem is that the national space standards are not mandatory – they only apply if an up to date local plan has been adopted and developers can challenge them.

One of the main findings in the report is that the number of micro-homes has increased significantly in recent years. We looked at energy performance certificate data and found that there had been a rise from 2,139 in 2013 to 9,605 in 2018. This is not just a London phenomenon either. Significant numbers of micro-homes have been created in the North West, Yorkshire and Humberside. The report points out that this is a short-term, short-sighted response to the housing crisis that is storing up problems for the future.

Many new micro-home schemes have been developed using slick marketing techniques, aimed at Millennials, highlighting their lower carbon footprint and the desire to own less stuff and live more simply. But this does not detract from the fact that living in a tiny room makes a normal life difficult, in terms of storage, food preparation, having friends to stay and so on, and can add to problems of health and wellbeing.

One of the recent trends has been a growth of co-housing work-life schemes – like The Collective, which has plans to build over 7,000 flats in the UK, Europe and New York. The Oak Collective in Ealing has 500 en suite rooms and the smallest are 11 square metres, smaller than a Travelodge room. This lack of space is supposedly offset by generous communal areas where residents can work or engage in community activities.

The weekly inclusive rent for a one-person studio is between £250 and £290 depending on whether you stay for 12 or four months (the longer the stay the lower the rent). That means paying over £15,000 a year in some cases. The developer admits that the co-work model
allowed him to build over 100 more rooms in the scheme, and generate an additional rental income of well over £1m a year. Whether the communal space will be provided in perpetuity is a moot point (something for the planners to grapple with).

The number of micro-homes has also increased significantly in recent years as a result of permitted development rights being made permanent in 2015, allowing conversions from office to residential without the need for planning permission. In 2017/18, 29,720 new homes
were created from office to residential out of a total of 222,190 net additions. That is 13.4% of the total. Only a fraction were micro-homes, but many of these schemes are in unsuitable locations next to polluting roads and distant from facilities.

Some have no windows and are single aspect accessed off long corridors. These schemes are speculative, uncontrolled, and unplanned, and therefore in clear contradiction of the planned approach set out in the National Planning Policy Framework, which requires that: “planning policies and decisions should ensure that developments…create places that are safe, inclusive, and accessible and which promote health and wellbeing, with a high standard of amenity for existing and future users.”

The report recommends that office to residential should be scrapped and brought back under the control of local planning committees. Another finding in the report is that micro-homes cost more per square metre, whether to rent or buy, and therefore add to inflationary pressures in the housing market.

Above all, the report concludes that micro-homes are a kneejerk reaction to the housing crisis and symptomatic of wider problems in planning, long-term under-investment, the crisis in the housebuilding industry, and the failure to consider any selective development of the green belt.

We are creating tomorrow’s slums today.